Editor's Note: The Beat was not in Santa Fe, but received this information from several sources.

Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) and co-sponsored by Sen. Howie Morales (D-Catron, Grant and Socorro) was killed in the Conservation Committee on Thursday, Feb. 13, by a vote of 6-4.  

The bill would have required the Interstate Stream Commission to expend a portion of the New Mexico Unit Fund for water utilization alternatives to meet water supply demands in the southwest water-planning region of New Mexico,

The stipulated amount in the bill was that no less than $82 million be allocated to implement non-diversion alternatives.

The money is allocated by the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, with funding of $62 million for non-diversion alternatives, up to $128 million for a diversion project. All funding must meet water supply demands.

At a hearing in the full Senate Chambers, after the Senate had recessed Thursday afternoon, a large crowd of environmentalists, with farmers, ranchers and elected officials filling out the room, heard comments from officials and 10 witnesses—five from the side supporting the bill and five from the side against the bill.

Wirth spoke in favor of his bill and said he was concerned that the ISC was not closer to a fully developed proposal for use of the water and funding.

The ISC is facing a deadline of Dec. 31, 2014 to let the U.S. Secretary of the Interior know of its decision to use the average annual 14,000 acre-feet of Gila and San Francisco rivers water to benefit the four-county region of Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron.

ISC staff has contracted numerous studies to address the 15 proposals received from the southwest corner of New Mexico. Twelve are non-diversion alternatives, and three are diversion alternatives, none of which proposes a dam across the Gila or San Francisco rivers.

Norman Gaume, former ISC director, spoke in favor of the bill because he said the Gila River in flood stage runs high in sediment and would likely fairly quickly plug up any diversion.

The current ISC director, Estevan López, spoke against the bill, and said he would have liked for the area to come to consensus on projects, but after more than 200 meetings over a decade in the area, it became obvious that no consensus could be reached, which was why it was the 11th hour for decision making.

As almost all surface water in New Mexico is allocated, he said the only place available for adding water to the state is through Gila River water.  

Water goes hand in hand with the economy. He concurred that water should be conserved, but that after water is used wisely, the state will still need more water.

López said Gaume presented points that should be investigated. He said the ISC has not yet made any decision and wishes to complete the studies, which have been contracted, before doing so.

Five witnesses testified in favor of the bill.

The first to speak was Jason Amaro of Silver City, who serves on the board of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. He said the state needs to protect the Gila River from diversion for his son, whom he has taken hunting and fishing on the Gila River. He spoke of family experiences on the river.

The next to speak was Stacy Tellinghuisen from the Boulder, Colo., office of Western Resource Advocates. She presented an economic analysis showing that if the water were to go to Deming, the residents would likely see their water bill double or triple.

Cissy McAndrew, Southwest Green Chamber of Commerce executive director, talked about the importance of the Gila River for recreation and tourism, and as the gateway to the Gila region.

Ella Kirk, a 14-year-old Aldo Leopold School student, said the decision made in the committee would have an impact on her, as she is the future generation. She also spoke of the importance of the river to the school as an outdoor classroom. She gathered 6,470 signatures from the state, across the country and internationally to preserve the Gila River.  The petition was presented to Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday.

The last to speak in favor of the bill was Beth Bardwell, Audubon New Mexico fresh water conservation director. She spoke of her concern about the ecological impacts of diversions and said, contrary to what the ISC claims, small and moderate flows of the Gila River would be impacted by a diversion.

Five testified against the bill.

They included Rick McInturff, Deming city manager, who gave analytic and specific comments as to the need for the water in the four-county area. He also pointed out that the Gila River is neither a free-flowing nor a wild river, because of diversions near the Gila Cliff Dwellings, in the Cliff-Gila Valley, and at Redrock and Virden.

Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planner, spoke about growing up along the Gila, working at farms as a youth, and how the economy of the area has decreased. The area once had several stores and two gas stations. It has only one gas station now.

Javier Diaz, Luna county commissioner, said he was elected to represent 14,000 people in the county, so he was representing their interests, because they were working for a living and couldn't afford to take time off to be there.

He also said that several of the local business owners had their names put on a petition, without their permission in an underhanded way, in violation of their stand on the water issue.

Stan Jones, a fourth-generation Hidalgo County farmer, with water rights dating to 1881, showed aerial photos taken last summer of areas, about two miles above the first farm in the Virden Valley, which were dry for seven weeks. He said the dry river caused a 100 percent fish kill and wildlife left the area. Jones also showed photos of when the river had water in it and provided a healthy riparian area and water for irrigation.

If water were stored, he said, it could be used to keep the river from going dry.

Donnie Stailey, Cliff-Gila Valley farmer, who was born next to the Gila River, said he has lived his whole life along the river and continues to farm there. He talked about the old saying of shutting up a dog by throwing him a bone. He told Wirth he had just taken away Stailey's bone. Stailey reiterated, as he has in past meetings: "It's not about the money. It's about the water."

The first call for a Do Pass on the bill failed 6-4. A last ditch effort to get the bill directly to the floor of the Senate failed because of a 5-5 tie.

Sen. Pat Woods (R-Curry, Quay and Union) was vocal against the bill. He is a farmer and spoke directly to Wirth telling him he had told Wirth he could not support the bill.

Live from Silver City

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