Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of three articles on the Interstate Stream Commission quarterly meeting addressing the Arizona Water Settlements Act planning process.

By Mary Alice Murphy

The next report at the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission's April 14, 2014 quarterly public meeting, held in Cliff at the high school gymnasium, was given by Ali Effati, ISC civil engineer/water resources.

"This is the phase 1 Assessment of Potential Ecologic Impacts from Diversions from the Gila River under the Terms of the 2004 AWSA," Effati introduced the presentation. "The main objective is to quantify ecologic impacts of removal of the full amount of the AWSA water on key species."

The presentation was of the preliminary results from SWCA environmental consultants. The subcontractors were Normandeau Inc. of Arcadia, Calif., for habitat suitability criteria development, physical habitat simulation for species of interest (PHABSIM), and habitat time series analysis. Dr. Bill Pine of the University of Florida is doing the population viability analysis (PVA) under AWSA flow scenarios.

Effati noted there are 17 species of interest, including fish, birds, reptile, amphibians and crustaceans. "The habitat suitability criteria have been developed only for 11 species of fish, so this presentation is all related to fish."

This study is based on the sites in a 2006 geomorphology study. The sites are the confluence of Turkey Creek with the Gila River, The Nature Conservancy site, the Bird Area, the Lower Box site and the Virden Bridge site. SWCA and Normandeau only considered the TNC and Bird Area sites.

"The results from before and after AWSA Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement diversions show positive and negative habitat changes for natives and non-natives," Effati said.

"We chose the most pessimistic case, so results in this presentation are negative change for natives, positive change for non-natives," he said.

Native species showed a .9-2.3 percent reduction in chub species larval habitat; 1-2 percent reduction in sucker species spawning habitat and 1.4-2.7 percent in longfin dace spawning habitat. The non-native smallmouth bass showed up to 2.5 percent increase in all life stages habitats. Conclusion: Up to 3 percent habitat negative or positive change for native and non-native species.

In the population viability analysis, the results show that the larger the population size and the less variable the survival rate, the lower the risk of extinction. For both spikedace and loach minnow, extinction probability was found to be low.

"The complete study will evaluate other species, and model the Turkey Creek site, as well as analyze dry to non-dry stream channel sections," Effati said. "Results were positive for the loach minnow and spikedace, with a positive change up to 3 percent."

"What about the positive habitat change for native species?" a male speaker asked.

"It is evidence-based using the index under different flow scenarios," Effati explained. "It shows an increase of native species after the AWSA diversions. The years of the study were flows from 1937-2013. We put in a climate change impact."

"What months did the study look at?" Donnie Stailey, Gila Valley irrigator, asked, to which Effati replied: September through June.

"Many endangered fish died with the ash in the water," Stailey noted.

"In the 1937-2013 timeline, the study took into effect climate change, but not last year's September flood," Effati replied.

"What studies was this one based on?" Kyle Johnson, Gila Valley resident asked to which Effati replied: a 2006 geomorphology report.

"How has the habitat changed for the smallmouth bass and how was it reflected?" a man asked.

"That will be in the next part of the study," Effati replied. "We could find optimal flows for native species."

A man asked if there had been field studies on endangered species since the ash flow.

Another man in the audience replied that David Propst had done some with The Nature Conservancy, but hadn't summarized the data.

"Before you make a determination, will there be a study on those that drink the water, not just swim in it?" a third man asked.

"The subcontractor has not yet developed the model for the birds, reptiles, amphibians and crustaceans," Effati said, "but yes, that is the plan."

Helen Sobien, ISC engineer, gave the third presentation of the evening. "This is a summary of the biological survey and cultural surveys of the canyons that might be used for some of the AWSA proposals."

She noted that SWCA was hired to investigate what species of plants and animals might be found in AWSA proposal areas. SWCA approached the task in two steps: first, a desktop survey, with pre-field survey background information and second, an on-the ground field survey to verify desktop survey information and to obtain additional information.

The report can be found on the nmawsa.org website.

State and federal agencies and methods were used, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, which were used for special status animal species and their habitats, along with the NM Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, USFS, and New Mexico Rare Plant Technical Council for special status plant species and their habitats. The USDA National Resources Conservation Service supplied soils classification types; the Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project (SWReGAP), vegetation community types, the UNM Heritage Program information, USGS freshwater springs date and the National Wetlands Inventory of wetlands and riparian data.

The data was gathered for each canyon and put into a spreadsheet to guide the field study.

"Ten canyons were proposed for water storage, but some dropped out because of geologic faults or the property owner didn't want us there," Sobien said.

The field data that was acquired verified or corrected desktop survey information. Photographs were taken at designated points; the New Mexico Rapid Assessment Method was used for riparian environmental conditions and health; and NRCS pasture/rangeland condition index scores for upland and riparian areas.

"Much of the data was negated by fieldwork," she said.

The contractor made efforts to standardize the data using a score sheet [which she showed.]

"Three areas were chosen in Sycamore Canyon." Sobien continued. "One was vegetated, one cattle trampled and one desert."

[She showed the NMRAM field verified and corrected map. Also shown was the NRCS pasture condition scores for Sycamore Canyon.]

Conclusions showed results from the field study sometimes differed from the desktop study, and that status of rangeland health, potential species and habitat diversity, as well as potential presence of sensitive species have been documented.

"The only animals actually identified as seen in the field campaign were cattle and frogs, species not identified," Sobien noted.

The Cultural Resources Survey, also known as the Archaeological Ruins Survey, had the goal of determining where archaeological artifacts might be found in AWSA proposal areas. SWCA also did this study, which it approached as a desktop survey.

"This is just a starting point," Sobien said.

"This is preliminary, I understand," Kim Clark, Gila Valley resident, said. "Will there be fieldwork or is this just theoretical?"

"If the commissioners want to go ahead, there will be more study," Sobien said.

"This will be done after the proposal is determined?" a man asked, to which Sobien replied: "Correct."

Craig Roepke, ISC Gila Project manager, asked: "Would you hire this consultant again?"

"I was gobsmacked that they saw only cattle and frogs," the man said. "Bill Pine may be an expert but..."

"Pine is an expert," Carol Evans, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Gila biologist, replied. "He was looking for a single species."

"I see this as 'Trust us,'" the same man replied.

Mary Reece of the Phoenix Office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said:
"We will not flood an area if we find something."

"At other meetings we have gotten information, not this time," a man said. "When will you get into live people and animals?"

"Will residents be moved by any of these projects?" a woman asked.

"One person," Sobien replied. When the woman persisted and asked who, Sobien said she was not sure she could say. Roepke stepped up and said: "He lives in Sycamore Canyon."

The final article will cover the final presentation, which was on ditch improvements, their impacts and costs.

Live from Silver City

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