Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a two-part report on water issues being discussed at a Silver City-Grant County TEA Party Patriots meeting.
By Mary Alice Murphy
On Tuesday, April 1, the Silver City-Grant County TEA Party Patriots hosted an informational meeting about the Arizona Water Settlements Act.
Peter Burrows, who facilitated the event, said: "About three years ago, Craig Roepke, Interstate Stream Commission deputy director and Gila Project manager, said all over New Mexico, water tables are dropping. We are using Ice Age water that can't be replaced."
Burrows said the AWSA allocated $66 million up to $128 million from the federal government. About 70 proposals made by people in the four-county region of Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron were whittled down to 16 and since then one proposal was withdrawn, leaving 15 projects being evaluated.
He said the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission is made up of 18 entities. Burrows pointed out the brochure on the tables, which states the group needs the support of residents of the region.
"Our two speakers tonight are Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planner and Gila/San Francisco Water Commission chairman, and Vance Lee, representing Hidalgo County on the commission," Burrows introduced them.
Lee was the first to speak. "I appreciate any opportunity to talk about the AWSA. We live right on the river, where my wife and I have a ranch. We have 2 ½ miles of the river where we run our cattle. We used to farm. I have been involved in the planning for the past 10 years."
He explained the group, which later changed its name to the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission, came into effect before the act was even signed in Dec. 2004.
"It was set up to help the Interstate Stream Commission come up with reasons for Congress to pass the AWSA," Lee said.
Gutierrez said he appreciated being invited. "I'm assuming people are familiar with the AWSA, and I'm hoping to answer questions. In my opinion, we have gotten bad publicity from the local print papers. They don't seem to know what the commissioners want. We want to retain the water that rightfully belongs to New Mexico, so it stays in New Mexico. The paper talked about costs and misquoted me. At no time did I talk about privatization of the water. We have discussed public/private partnerships. They are important when a small community like ours cannot afford infrastructure. We have to be able to finance it so local communities benefit from the water."
"Water is a huge commodity in the Southwest," Gutierrez said. "From California to Texas and Oklahoma, we have been in a severe drought. We have been supportive of conservation, but water has to be stored to meet demands.
"This winter, I think we had less than 1 inch of snow," he continued. "We need practices to bring us some new water. The National Weather Service predicts another good monsoon. I disagree that we have enough water. Aquifers are replenished by snowpack, which we haven't had in about 10 years. We rely on the water we're not getting."
He said the planning is an on-going process. "We had a Stakeholders Group, made up of different facets of the community, including environmentalists, local governments, state and federal representatives, and Gila/San Francisco Water Commission members. The purpose was to reach consensus. It's difficult to reach when the people come from different points of view. Legislators asked why we couldn't do anything in 10 years. It's also hard to do without funding. The proposals didn't have much engineering. The ISC has had at most two years worth of funding for studies. The ISC had funding allocated by the Legislature several years ago, but the then-governor vetoed it. People look at the overall cost of a diversion and say it weighs heavily on taxpayers, but it doesn't have to."
Lee said Gutierrez alluded to the 10 years of planning. "Political issues kept us from moving forward. The government, as usual, waits until the last minute."
He gave some history of water in the region. In the 1964 Arizona versus California lawsuit, 30,000 acre-feet of water were allocated to New Mexico. It equaled the amount of water being used at the time, when not as much farming was going on as before that time or even as now.
In 1968, 18,000 acre-feet of additional water to the 30,000 acre-feet were allocated, but not developed because of the spikedace and loach minnow. "The water is still on the books. Since those years, more than 800,000 acre-feet of water have left New Mexico. If we don't develop now the additional 14,000 acre-feet of water, as allocated in the AWSA, we won't have another chance. If we don't develop it, our kids and grandkids should do something to our graves. Not keeping the water would be doing a disservice to the regional economy."
He explained the 14,000 acre-feet was a rolling average of 140,000 acre-feet allowed over 10 years. Lee also said the $128 million may also be less because of interest rates since 2004.
"The idea that the river is going to dry up if we divert water, regardless of how low the flow, is not true," Lee said. "Water, at a maximum of 350 cubic feet a second, will be taken usually at flood levels. It has been estimated that 7 percent of the water would be taken on 10 percent of the days. That's 36-and-a-half days a year.
"No dam is proposed to be built on the river," Lee continued. "Although I proposed such a dam. Floods make a shambles of the Virden Valley, but a dam is not one of the proposed projects.
"We believe the AWSA water will stay in New Mexico," Lee said. "If we don't develop it, we think Las Cruces will use it or maybe Albuquerque."
Referring to items on the brochure, he said, in the fiction section, some feel it is better to leave the water in the river to go to Arizona. "They'll use it on golf courses."
"The diversions above and below our ranch are concrete," Lee said, "similar to the diversion off the river that goes to Bill Evans Lake."
"It has been said a lot that there is not a present or future need for the water in the river," Lee continued. "We think there is a need and a demand. The water levels under Deming and Animas are going down. Some say the water users will pay for developing the water. That remains to be seen.
"Some say diversions are detrimental to the river," Lee said. "One project would divert in the Upper Gila Valley, be held and would gravity feed to keep the river wet. Three out of five years, the river goes dry."
Kurt Albershardt, Silver City business owner and resident, asked about the 30,000 acre-feet of water.
"That's the amount we are allowed to take now," Lee explained. "The 18,000 acre-feet were taken away from irrigators in 1964, and in 1968, New Mexico fought to get it back. It's on the books, but the 14,000 is meant to take the place of the 18,000. The Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, which has the senior rights to the water, was suing farmers up and down the river. Through negotiations with Arizona, the ISC set it up so New Mexico does not have to fight for the 14,000 acre-feet."
A question was asked about whether storage means dams on the river.
"No it doesn't," Lee said. "Offstream storage can benefit the farmers, but I don't think it affects ranchers much."
"What is the possibility of resurrecting Hooker Dam?" a written question asked.
"Slim," Lee said. "I proposed a dam at the lower end of the Lower Box and another dam was also proposed by the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission. Neither made it through the Tier 1 evaluation process. I think it was 23 that passed Tier 1 and 16 passed Tier 2. Why not the Hooker? I think it was because of endangered species."
"The cost is the most controversial issue," Gutierrez said. "Some are worried about higher taxes to pay for the projects. At this point, I will give you some history on the Senate Bill 89, which sought to take $82 million of the allocated funding —it is $66 million in 2004 dollars, which computes to about $82 million—to use for conservation projects. Senators (Peter) Wirth and (Howie) Morales told me they wanted to bring recognition to conservation and the possibility of saving water to provide new water. In my opinion, if you don't have water, how can you conserve? Yes, it is proven that low-flow toilets and better irrigation systems work. It's a great idea, but the senators on the committee did not want to eliminate having new water. There are those who don't have sufficient groundwater now and are having to drill much deeper wells. To have new water, you have to store surface water.
"I don't foresee Deming or Silver City turning into a metropolis," Gutierrez continued. "I attended a seminar on economic development. Deming is improving its border crossing. A lot of countries south of the border and across the world are using U.S. resources to grow quickly. Foreign investors are investing in the U.S. We want to do this to give our local economies jobs. The key is water. We answer potential recruitment opportunities; water and infrastructure are key. We have to look to the future. Even if there's a 25 percent growth, that puts a burden on the aquifer."
He said several senators tasked him with determining possible financing for projects, because there is not enough tax revenue to fund large diversions. The New Mexico Finance Authority has opened an avenue to use private money to build infrastructure. Public/private partnerships are using the banking system and tax incentives to build infrastructure that taxes alone cannot. Tax revenue, such as capital outlay, can be used to match grant funding.
"I was approached by investors for which it would not be their first project," Gutierrez said. "They have invested in the Chama project to Albuquerque and another to a Santa Fe project. Another project that is public/private is the one from the Pecos River to the middle Rio Grande."
He said private investors approached him with the recommendation that a local authority be created to contract for the water and make it available for leasing the water from the authority. "Decisions would be made by the local authority, which has not yet been formulated. The water could be leased for agricultural or municipality or another use."
Gutierrez said financial analyses had a combination of local dollars, federal dollar and private dollars to build the infrastructure. "Then the lease program would start, whether a farmer wanted to grow pecan trees in Luna County or what." He said the Grant County commissioners do not support the water leaving the area.
He said calculations by the investors show that after construction, including the operations and maintenance costs and the debt service, the region stands to gain $2.5 million still left annually for the region without raising taxes.
"In any type of water situation, the end user pays for the water," Gutierrez said. "In Silver City, we have to pay for water taps. If a farmer wants water for his crop that needs extra water, he can pay for it."
He cautioned that projects don't pay for themselves overnight. He gave the example of a project in North Hurley to connect to the sewer line to the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, which cost $1.2 million. The users' bills increased by about $5 a month to pay for the project.
"Just the operations and maintenance of a water project in the region will be about $2.2 million during the payment period," Gutierrez reported. "At the end of the 20-year debt service, the region stands to receive about $10 million annually."
Albershardt asked what the private investors get for their investment.
"The private investor could lease the water, which could be used by the investor or, for instance Deming could use the water," Gutierrez said. "The authority decides. On the cost of construction, the banker disagreed with the $350 million cost and thought it could be done more cheaply."
Albershardt said he was "highly skeptical" and would like to see the paperwork.
"I'm not skeptical," Gutierrez said. "We had a project that was estimated to cost $1.2 million. It went out to bid and was done for $875,000."
The rest of the report will be in a subsequent article.