By Mary Alice Murphy

Interstate Stream Commissioner Craig Roepke was the featured speaker for the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments at its bi-monthly meeting held Thursday, April 24, 2014, at the Bayard Community Center.

He gave an update on "where we are on the Arizona Water Settlements Act planning process and what we've learned so far from studies."

For history, he said the AWSA federal legislation, which was signed in 2004, allocated up to $128 million, indexed for inflation, for projects, and 140,000 additional acre-feet of Gila and San Francisco basins water. "This is a running total for a 10-year period. By the end of this year, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission must make a decision whether to develop the water or not. $62 million is automatically forfeited if we do not develop the water.

The NMISC also determines the allocation of the initial $66 million of federal funding, which must meet a "water supply demand."

Roepke said the projects can include municipal conservation and other conservation projects or it can be part of the funding for developing the water. The funding above $66 million is only for development.

"A contract between the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the water users must be approved by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission," Roepke said. "New Mexico may opt to design, build and operate facilities to develop water. The state will own the facilities.

"Development of the water requires a favorable record of decision after the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process," he said.

He also showed a slide of the ISC Gila Policy, which was formulated and approved before the AWSA was even signed.

The policy states: "The Interstate Stream Commission recognizes the unique and valuable ecology of the Gila Basin. In considering any proposal for water utilization under Section 212 of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, the Commission will apply the best available science to fully assess and mitigate the ecological impacts on Southwest New Mexico, the Gila River, its tributaries and associated riparian corridors, while also considering the historic uses of and future demands for water in the Basin and the traditions, cultures and customs affecting those uses."

"Those are the tenets the ISC is committed to basing the decision on, including environmental, agricultural, municipal, cultures, costs and economics and non-governmental organizations," Roepke said.

He showed photos of the area around the Gila River headwaters.

"Over the Continental Divide the landscape changes a whole lot in the Cliff-Gila Valley," Roepke said. "Drying of the river is intermittent along the reaches and happens almost every May to June. The drying of the river is detrimental to the riparian areas and endangered species. Isolated pools provide diminished habitat."

He said downstream from the drying is a steady flow, primarily due to return flow from irrigated fields and pastures. "Near Virden, the river is dry almost half the year."

The stretch of the river between the wilderness and the Arizona border holds critical riparian areas, it narrows in places, and in the areas where the river spreads out, it was settled in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s.

"They built diversions, and each year, in May and June when the flows diminish, they have to decide whether to leave water in the ditches for irrigation," Roepke said. "Right now, at Hatch, the Rio Grande is bone dry. We could leave water in the river for habitat or irrigation, but there is not enough to do both.

"Some have told me there is not enough water for human habitation," Roepke said. "On the Gila, there are 11 diversions and dams. They are the attributes that make the river beautiful, but it's a trap. That beauty, if not used for agriculture, will attract development, and then we will have a problem.

"With development, you have to be sure there is water every day," he said. "When the river gets low, homeowners will still be pumping their wells, and they will dry up the Gila River.

"We need to avoid that on the Gila, and not only in the Gila Basin, but also in the Mimbres Basin for Silver City and Deming," Roepke continued.

He showed a potentiometric map, with concentric circles indicating the aquifer drawdown in areas, such as Deming. "There is a 30,000 acre-foot deficit in the Mimbres Basin, with the aquifer dropping a third of a foot a year in some places and in Deming, 1.37 foot a year. These are not the ISC's statistics. These are from the U.S. Geological Survey."

"We've been down here for 10 years working on this process," Roepke said. "We have estimates of the wants and needs. Agriculture wants 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet a year, which includes stopping the drawdown of the aquifer. Municipal needs range from 2,500 to 14,000 acre-feet a year. The environment needs 500 to 1,500 acre-feet annually; biofuels want 10,000 to 30,000 acre-feet of water; industry 500 acre-feet to 50,000 acre-feet. The total is 45,000 to 160,000 acre-feet a year. These are wants and not necessarily total needs."

After 10 years of trying to reach consensus with stakeholders, in 2011, "we advanced 21 projects to Tier-2 review," Roepke said. "The act requires consultation with the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission."

He said the review narrowed the number to 16 projects, with one, a reuse project from Bayard being withdrawn because of receiving alternate funding.

The remaining projects under study by the ISC include one municipal conservation project, two wastewater reuse proposals, three ditch improvements, five watershed restoration projects, and four diversion and storage proposals.

About $2.8 million is being spent on studies, and most are ecological studies. "What we're looking at in each proposal," Roepke said, "is the technical feasibility, the economic costs and benefits, the environmental impacts and advantages, the cultural consequences, and the amount of water supplied."

Studies also being done include an agricultural conservation study, one on wetlands, use of The Nature Conservancy Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software, and climate change studies. The ISC is using and contracting for up to 28 studies.

"Silver City is assuming it can save 50 percent of water use through conservation, which would be about 1,425 acre-feet," Roepke said. "It's about the same in Deming with an estimate of 1,428 acre-feet in savings. With wastewater reuse, Deming expects to save about 200 acre-feet of water and Grant County about 750 acre-feet. Ditch improvements will be significant for the ditches but will not save a lot of water."

He said on watershed restoration, recently the ISC convened eight eminent scientists from the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and academia.

"The only thing they found in common was that no one agreed with anyone else on how to do watershed restoration or how to monitor it," Roepke said. "Some said water could be lost, and others said there could be gains."

The diversion and storage proposals include one from the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission, another from Hidalgo County, a Deming Regional Water Supply proposal and the fourth, a Grant County reservoir, for which the county has indicated it wants to use AWSA water.

"We are studying them all as one integrated project, and are estimating a safe yield of between 7,000 acre-feet a year and 10,000 afy," Roepke said. "The similar concept is that if we can store some of the water when there is excess, we can release some when it looks like this (showing a dry reach of the river).

"We could meet two needs with the same drop of water," Roepke said. "At the same time we're keeping the river wet for the environment, we could use it for irrigation."

He showed a hydrograph of the water levels during low flows and flood flows. "The red tips you see on the graph show the water that will be skimmed off the top of the floods. That is what we would be allowed to take. One week we could be taking water, and next week we don't touch a drop. If we take 350 cubic feet per second today, tomorrow, even if there is more flow, we can't take."

Roepke said no water would be diverted from the river until it is at least double the median flow, thereby providing environmental protection.

He said three studies are trying to quantify climate change. The one by Reclamation shows 9 percent decrease in water flow; The Nature Conservancy hired the University of Arizona to perform a study, which estimates 6 percent less water flow; and a climatologist predicts 8 percent less water flowing. The change is expected to be 8 percent to 9 percent in 2050. "However, reduced flow every day does not have much impact on what can be withdrawn," Roepke said. "We will be able to take 7 percent of the water on 10 percent of the days."

"What will the water cost? " he continued. "I've tried to be positive. Keeping the dry river wet can improve the environment. The most effective way to present a negative viewpoint is to scare people.

"It is not cheap water," Roepke said. "Estimates range from $200 million to $500 million for construction, plus $1 million to $3 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.

"Future costs in 10 to 20 years are estimated to be $1 billion for construction and in 20 to 40 years, $5 billion," Roepke said. "Eastern New Mexico could have taken water 30 years ago for $40 million. Now it will cost at least $600 million. In the 1980s, the Animas/La Plata project cost $30 million. Now it would have cost as high as $800 million.

"There is a projected water supply deficit in the Colorado River Basin, as estimated by Reclamation," he continued. "The supply is no longer meeting the demand.

"Everywhere there is not enough water to go around," Roepke said. "Montana sued Wyoming because it said Wyoming took too much water out of the Powder River Basin. People back East weren't thinking about running out of water, but now they are thinking about it.

"There are a lot of conflicts—the economy, the cost, legal issues, national politics, lifestyles, and the basic problem is there is not enough water to go around," he said. "Municipal conservation locally can provide 3,000 acre-feet of water; watershed restoration could provide plus to minus 2,000 acre-feet, and effluent reuse about 1,000 acre-feet.

"We continue to mine groundwater with a 30,000 acre-foot deficit now; it's like living off our inheritance," Roepke said. "Ditch improvements might save 600 acre-feet and drip irrigation, according to studies, shows 8 percent to 48 percent more consumption.

"We could import water, but from where?" he asked. "We can import our food, but at what cost and what risk? Deep aquifers and desalinization are pumping and energy intensive.

"The AWSA 7,000 to 14,000 annual average acre-feet of water are the last new water New Mexico is going to see," he said. "The mine needs 45,000 acre-feet, the Mimbres Basin has a 30,000 acre-foot deficit. With agricultural and municipal conservation, watershed restoration and reuse plus the AWSA water will give us up to 17,000 acre-feet.

"What we will have to do is develop new water, do municipal conservation, as well as agricultural conservation and crop changes, with maybe dry land farming or the federal government paying farmers not to grow," Roepke said. "We can tap the aquifers for a while, but we have to change lifestyles."

He said San Diego, Calif., is doing a $3 billion pilot toilet-to-tap project.

"Water is a necessity and we're going to have to pay to get it," he concluded.

Kim Clark, representing the Realtors Association, said it was nice to hear facts and figures.

"The ISC nickname is have presentation, will travel," Roepke smiled.

The rest of the meeting will be covered in a future article.

Live from Silver City

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