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Amending an AWSA water use proposal was GSFWC meeting surpise

While Charles "Tink" Jackson, manager of the Deming Office of the State Engineer prepared for his somewhat surprising presentation, members of the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission heard from ISC Deputy Director Craig Roepke about the Input Committee, which serves to give input into the ISC review process of submitted projects to use Arizona Water Settlements Act water and funding allocated to the region.

"The Input Committee and the ISC are in a holding pattern," Roepke said. "The ISC asked that the Input Committee not try to come to consensus, but just to provide their opinions."

He announced that the next Input Committee meeting would take place in Silver City, Monday, April 15, with the quarterly public meeting that evening, with time and place to be announced.

The GSFWC is the group authorized in the Arizona Water Settlements Act, as the ones to advise the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission on how water and funding should be allocated.

Jackson addressed what had happened in the past couple of weeks as a result of a capital outlay request by Sen. John Arthur Smith, who represents portions of Hidalgo, Luna, Sierra, and Doña Ana counties. Smith proposed a study to utilize in Las Cruces and in the four counties, through which a pipeline would travel to carry it, 10,000 annual, average acre-feet of water diverted from the Gila River. The AWSA allocates 14,000 acre-feet of water, but 4,000 acre-feet are allocated from the San Francisco River.

Jackson explained that a separate $75 million had been requested to divert water from Carlsbad to the Lower Rio Grande Basin, as a result of significant lawsuits from Texas about ground water usage impacting how much surface water travels from New Mexico to Texas, as required by interstate compacts. The suit alleges that surface water percolates into groundwater and cuts the amount that remains as surface water.

"The Office of the State Engineer believes that once the water is percolated into the ground, it belongs to the state," Jackson said. "A state decision upheld the OSE, but the decision is likely to be appealed, as Texas sued that the groundwater is taking water from the Rio Grande."

Jackson said he met with Smith on the $25 million. "He made things clear. He has been looking at the potential impact to Hidalgo and Luna counties, as well as Las Cruces. It would be a $1 billion impact if New Mexico loses the suits. He told me the state had given you down here 10 years to determine how to utilize the water, and if you don't figure how to use it, it will go to Las Cruces."

In meeting with Luna County officials in Santa Fe, he said they asked if the water could be used outside the four-county area.

"Yes, the water can go anywhere in the state," Jackson said, "but the $66 million (allocated by the AWSA) can be used only within the four-county area.

"Our concern is that a pipeline would take the water to Las Cruces," he continued. "We here don't want the water to go to Las Cruces. The potential is for the pipeline to go through Silver City, the mining district towns, to Deming to Las Cruces."

He presented some history of how the additional water was allocated to the region. "In the 1960s, the 500-pound gorilla in Arizona was being sued for the Gila River water by the 800-pound gorilla in California. Arizona came over to New Mexico, the 30-pound monkey, for help. The suit went to the Supreme Court, and at that time, 18,000 acre-feet of water was allocated to New Mexico, but we never used it."

He pointed out that Silver City keeps a reserve of water, as does Deming and Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc.

"If the pipeline goes by that water, it, too, is at risk of being transferred to Las Cruces," Jackson said. "I said, when this whole process started at that two-day meeting in Deming, 'If we do not do something to get this water, it will go to Las Cruces.'"

What has been decided is that the proposal from Deming, already being reviewed by the Input Committee and the ISC, will be amended to make sure the water is used in the four counties. Jackson said representatives from Silver City, Grant County, Hurley, Bayard, Deming and Luna County all agree that the water be used in the four counties. "We will pull Catron County into the project, and I have spoken to Hidalgo County representatives. We will have one plan that all governments agree will put the water to use in the four counties. That water will get used in New Mexico. The senator (Smith) made it clear that he will not let the water cross the state line to Arizona. We can argue about costs. It doesn't matter."

The Deming plan amendment is still being worked on, but the basic plan, which was to build a pipeline from the Gila River to Deming remains, with items to be added.

Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planner and Input Committee member, pointed out the factor of beneficial use of the water. "It is difficult for me to comprehend how a pipeline to Deming won't make it easier to take the water to Las Cruces. Make sure beneficial use is the primary factor."

Jackson said the size of the pipe would be too small for it to be practical to continue it to Las Cruces.

"We are more worried about protecting the water for use here," Jackson said. "Once we make an agreement with the Secretary of the Interior for use in the four-county area, the water can't go anywhere else."

To a comment from Gutierrez about Smith's threatening bill, Jackson said Smith told him that although throughout the process it has been declared no state money would be used for the AWSA process, with all the threats, Smith could not stand by and watch the water leave the state.

Vance Lee, GSFWC member, asked about a deadline for the amended proposal.

"It has to be done by March 8," Jackson said. "Deming has a consultant working on it."

The deadline date was given to those proposing projects a chance to amend them, as a result of some proposals requestng change due to the Whitewater-Baldy Fire last summer.

"How does this project coincide with the ISC reviewing other projects?" Lee asked.

"When this project is moving forward, other entities are likely to pull their projects," Jackson said.

Alex Thal, GSFWC alternate, asked if it were too late to express concern to Smith.

"He was adamant that he will listen, but he said: 'You've had plenty of time, but didn't do anything,'" Jackson said. "He said: 'As long as you figure out how to use the water in the four counties, it won't go to Las Cruces.'"

Gutierrez asked if the process could be expedited, because a lot of projects need engineering.

"I think the ISC will move as quickly as possible," Roepke said. "Our process and Smith's have nothing to do with each other. If you agree in the four counties and others drop out that will speed it up. We'll study any viable project, but if a project is abandoned, it won't be studied."

He pointed out the elevation change to Deming is about 400 feet, with another 650 feet elevation difference down to Las Cruces.

Tom Bates, GSFWC president, said the Southwest Regional Water Plan stipulated the AWSA water not be used outside the four counties.

"Southern New Mexico has a shortage of water," Roepke said. "If you don't want it, somebody else will."

Jackson read a copy of a resolution to be voted on in Deming and said he would get copies to other governmental entities in the four counties. The resolution states that the AWSA water is the "only source of new water to Southwest New Mexico." The resolution also stipulates a local regional water authority to sell water within the four counties.

Congressman Steve Pearce was in the audience. He said when he served in the New Mexico Legislature, beginning in 1997, there was a man who always talked about the 18,000 acre-feet of water owed to New Mexico.

"Nobody listened to him, but when I went to Congress, I was blocking every Republican water bill that came through," Pearce said. "Arizona representatives asked me why. I said: 'New Mexico wants the water back.' Domenici's office pushed the AWSA through and brought back 14,000 and money to go with it.

"At the end of the day, Craig said it best," Pearce continued. "If you don't use the water, someone will. The Saudi Arabians are buying water rights worldwide, because they understand water is as strategic as oil. We either divert and use the water or history will show we lost it. It's been disappointing to watch the 10 years go by with nothing done. I will be beside you to keep the water here. Don't fight each other. Las Vegas, Nevada, will buy it, if we continue to fight each other.

"I have a high level of interest in the issue and appreciate your work on it," he said. "The future of southwest New Mexico depends on you."

The rest of the meeting will be covered in a future article, with county officials and audience members making comments on the proposal.

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