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Gila Basin Irrigation Commissioners talk about Gila River water

They also discuss GSFWC meeting

By Mary Alice Murphy

The Gila Basic Irrigation Commission held a meeting April 22, 2014 in Gila.

The first report was from the treasurer, who said the commission has $139.75 in its account. "We sent $1,000 to the Reservation Fund to show our interest in securing the Arizona Water Settlements Act allocated water," Treasurer Topper Thorpe said. "We have about $300 due from ditch associations. The Reservation Fund money may be refunded depending on whether there is a project."

Thorpe also reported on activities of the Interstate Stream Commission. "A number of commissioners, community members and I took a tour Sunday afternoon to see sites in the valley being considered for water storage."

He pointed to a stack of material, provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which he asked attendees to take copies. "They identify spots for reservoirs, preliminary economic analyses, and one talks about the NEPA process and how it applies. There is also information about a New Mexico Unit. More information is found on the nmawsa.org website about project analyses and reviews."

He said the next ISC meeting would take place in Tucumcari, where the commissioners would be looking at Conchas Dam and the Ute Reservoir.

"I sense some frustration on some people's parts that we don't have final information," Thorpe said. "We're guessing on the estimates of costs and benefits, with all kinds of figures. People will use those figures to fit their purpose. I think it's still too early to know what's going to happen. Reclamation will have its draft report by July. It will be more precise, but not perfect."

He announced that present ISC Director Estevan Lopez has been nominated for commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, a position, which is right under the Secretary of the Interior.

"I would recommend we send a letter of recommendation for him to be confirmed," Thorpe said. "The ISC is seeking a replacement for him. There is important business taking place right now and they don't want a vacant ISC director."

Mary Burton Riseley, Gila Valley resident, said she was perturbed that the GBIC proposed diversion was not mentioned on the tour.

"More permanent diversions were discussed on the tour," Thorpe replied.

"The commissioners were given a packet," Riseley said. "GBIC is included in the packet, which is online."

"We did talk about it," Thorpe said. "We showed where the diversion would be."

Riseley reported the preferred site was taking water right below Brushy Canyon, and putting it into a 2.4-mile tunnel to Spar Canyon.

"My daughter was an intern at the ISC," she said. "People who work under Lopez are impressed with him and feel he isn't swayed by the winds of politics."

Eve Halper from the Tucson Reclamation office apologized for not preparing a statement, but said she would find out when the preliminary draft report is due.

Martha Cooper of The Nature Conservancy and resident of the Gila Valley asked when the 30-day comment period would be.

Halper said Reclamation usually releases the draft and then allows 30 days for comment, but she wasn't sure of the date.

The next agenda item was for a preliminary report on The Nature Conservancy study recently completed. Cooper said it was still under internal review, but at the next meeting she would discuss the bones of the study and bring the results.

A discussion ensued on the water situation prospects for 2014.

Thorpe said the river showed 72 cubic feet per second that morning. "The historical median for this time of year is 135 or so. We are only 25 cfs above the 85-year low, which occurred in 1956. We have an ample supply of water for right now, but no prospect for more unless it rains. I think we will have to go to terms much earlier than before."

Chairman David Ogilvie said on the Upper Gila and Gila Farm ditches, he thinks it will be critical much earlier.

"A meteorologist I'm familiar with has a high confidence we are going into an El Niño, but between now and then is the problem," Thorpe commented. "He thinks it will be an early monsoon and a decent one.

Ogilvie asked for a report on the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission meeting held earlier that day.

"I had to leave," Riseley said. "Some who represent what I want were so rude and disrespectful."

"I just considered the source," Don Stailey, irrigator, who also attended the meeting, said. "For eight or nine years, we were asked to reach consensus. I think the process has gotten farther along, but I don't know why some seem to think somebody is getting something for free. I'm willing to pay for what I get."

Ogilvie, who also serves on the GSFWC, said a lot of anger was pointed at an agenda item that was in error, and part of which had been tabled from a previous meeting. "A JPA has already been formed. I think we were seeking a memorandum of understanding to formalize GSFWC to have involvement. In the preliminary committee meeting, nothing was done, because we decided the JPA was already in place and it was not yet time to do anything else. It was tabled again."

"I thought at the stakeholders meetings all those years, the tone was set by Topper and by Adrian Oglesby (then of The Nature Conservancy)," Riseley said. "They were so civil. They thought there should be discussion, but respectful discussion. My opinion is that the valley will become polarized. I hate to see civility sacrificed."

"Several other things were discussed, including the tabling of scientific review of The Nature Conservancy's assessment," Ogilvie said. "There was an update on the Reservation Fund and on using some of the commission's money for public education.

Thorpe requested that prior to the next meeting, the commissioners let Halper know what they want her to cover.

"I'm interested in a comparison you are making of the feasibility of the Bohannon Huston study, and whether it will silt up," Riseley said to Halper. "A former ISC director testified that the ISC preferred project was not feasible."

Copper remarked that she appreciated how well the GBIC meetings are managed. "There are an array of perspectives. It seems like in the rural areas, people are trying to hang onto their water. It continues to perplex me why people want to export the water to Deming or Las Cruces. I think there is some common ground there that hasn't been explored."

"When the time comes that entities want water outside of the valley, the Farm Bureau will find an injured party, and we will take it to court," Mike Cuff of the Cliff-Gila Farm Bureau said. "Of course, that was already broken in the 1920s with the Franks Ranch selling its water to Silver City. That's the official line of the Farm Bureau."

Jerry Woodrow asked who in the valley can afford the water. Riseley said the costs would, as of now, be $146 an acre-foot.

"I have a theory that New Mexico state senators and representatives, as well as the governor, are not going to let the water leave to Arizona," Stailey said. "I think they will take the water and put it to use where they want to use it, and we will get no benefit."

"What will we say to our great-grandchildren when they ask: 'How stupid can you be to have let that water go?'" Cuff asked. "Storing the water is like putting it into a bank, so it can be put back into the river to benefit us."

Riseley asked Thorpe: "I have heard that the 1968 decision provided the 18,000 annual average acre-feet to New Mexico, and that we can still take it any time. All that goes away is the $34 million if there is no project."

"If you think you can let the water go and can get it back? I don't think so," Thorpe replied.

Riseley asked if the AWSA says anything about the 18,000 acre-feet being canceled.

"If it goes into Phoenix or wherever, we won't get it back," Thorpe said.

"I understand what you're saying, Mary, but I think the opportunity will be gone," Ogilvie said. "Arizona has the political influence to keep it. If it leaves New Mexico, it's gone. This is our one opportunity to keep the water. I think if the river had been controlled, the Woodrow Farm would still be there and would not have eroded away.

"At one time, we had three gas stations here, three grocery stores and restaurants," Ogilvie pointed out. "That's all gone. The AWSA was written to benefit the four counties. I think the better benefit would be to use the water and take care of the ecosystem."

Cuff said Safford farmers are having to give up their water to the Indian tribes.

Ogilvie said the Gila River Indian Community has agreed in the AWSA "to come to the defense of our use of Gila River water."

"I think it will be a benefit to discuss how much water it is possible to be taken," Cooper said. "It pains me that creative solutions are not being crafted. It's not the place of The Nature Conservancy, but it's been all or nothing with nothing in the middle."

The next meeting will be called as needed.

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