The Gila Basin Irrigation Commission at its monthly meeting, which was rescheduled to Thursday, Feb. 21, heard from New Mexico Office of the State Engineer Deming Office Manager Charles "Tink" Jackson on a discussion of a legislatively proposed pipeline to carry water from the Gila River to Las Cruces.
"Two or three weeks ago, we found out about a $25 million capital outlay item by Sen. John Arthur Smith," Jackson said. "The pipeline would travel through the four-county area. But it's not the only proposal on the table at the Legislature. A $75 million capital outlay project proposes to run a pipeline from the Salt River and Carlsbad to Las Cruces."
The reason behind these efforts is that New Mexico, and specifically the Las Cruces area, faces three lawsuits involving the state of Texas. One alleges the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Elephant Butte Dam, also owns all the groundwater that comes as a result of traveling down the Rio Grande from the Elephant Butte Reservoir, and not the state of New Mexico. It alleges Reclamation never intended to give up ownership of the water after it got past plant roots. Jackson said, by state law, as water that is released from EBID into New Mexico farmland and percolates past the roots of plants, it becomes subject to appropriation by New Mexico. This most recent suit by Texas alleges the pumping of groundwater in New Mexico affects the river flow. Texas wants the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in, stating it is the only court, which has jurisdiction.
"The EBID is not a New Mexico entity; it's a Texas entity," Jackson explained.
Historically, Texas was entitled to 43 percent of the Rio Grande water out of the EBID and New Mexico to 57 percent. In 2008, a new agreement was forged, which lowered the amount New Mexico was allowed to receive to only 38 percent. In 2011, during negotiations between Texas and New Mexico on the issue, New Mexico filed suit on the agreement, and it is still in the federal courts.
"It is obviously because of the drought, that more groundwater is being pumped, as the Rio Grande runs dry," Jackson said. "New Mexico has two water compacts with Texas—the Rio Grande Compact and the Pecos Compact. Texas expects New Mexico to bear the brunt, because we're smaller."
He said three different kinds of lawsuits would impact the Lower Rio Grande.
"If New Mexico loses the lawsuits, the financial impact to the Las Cruces area would be $1 billion in losses," Jackson said. "Others are looking to send every drop of water to the Lower Rio Grande.
"(Luna County Commissioner) Javier Diaz and I went to Smith in Santa Fe," Jackson said. "Smith said that in 10 years of meetings about the Arizona Water Settlements Act, he hasn't seen anything done about the AWSA (the 10,000 annual average acre-feet of water from the Gila River and 4,000 from the San Francisco River). Smith said: 'Figure out a way to use the water in the four counties. It's not going to Arizona.'"
Jackson said at that point, they talked about the Deming proposal to put a pipeline from the Gila to Deming, which those along the way would able to tap into.
"Yes, in 10 years, there has been a lot of work done, but no fruits," Jackson said. "The Gila Conservation Coalition said in an email that they will support conservation projects and nothing else."
Jackson also met with Congressman Steve Pearce when they rode together to the Gila/San Francisco Water Commission meeting two days before the GBIC meeting. "He was blatant that this is the last chance to get the water."
"I'm not going to see $66 million spent on low-flow toilets," Jackson said. "You of the GBIC have equal importance to other governments entities involved. We are incorporating other needs, so everyone gets something. The project as it is now and before additional changes, would place two reservoirs in the Gila River Basin on tributaries to the river. If the pipeline were three or four inches, Las Cruces is not going to come after it. We are reducing the pipe size so the water cannot serve anyone outside the four counties."
He said the water is worth millions of dollars, and "if we don't get the water, it will go to Las Cruces. I asked for clarification on the spirit of the act to use the water in the four-county area. The AWSA stipulates the $66 million to be spent in the four counties, but it doesn't say the four counties will have to benefit from the water."
Jackson also warned that NM Sen. Joseph Cervantes, representing Doña Ana County, is trying to get the AWSA water and funding decision-making away from the Interstate Stream Commission to where it will be a legislative decision. Jackson said he believes that would ensure the water is used outside the four-county area.
March 8 is the deadline imposed by the ISC to amend any of the 16 proposed projects.
"If the Lower Rio Grande Basin loses its right to Elephant Butte water, it will be a loss of 90,000 acre-feet of water rights to Texas," Jackson said. "Las Cruces would look to our Gila River water, as well as the 4,000 acre-feet unused in Deming, the Freeport McMoRan unused water rights, and Silver City's 1,000 acre-feet of unused water rights. Las Cruces would build a 36-inch pipeline and would take and make up about 40,000 acre-feet of unused water rights. We got run over in the 1960s, and we will get run over again."
To a question about the state water plan, Jackson said it states that New Mexico would not move water outside the four counties, but "the politicians are rolling the dice right now."
"I've always said, put the water in the hands of the farmers," Allen Campbell, GBIC member, said. "Then let market forces take over. Water always runs to money. If we get our projects going well, we'll be able to bid for the AWSA water. If the ISC stamps this project and takes it to the Secretary of the Interior, then Las Cruces cannot have the water. The final protection is a contract with the secretary, and a regional water board will determine where the water goes. But what about water transfers between basins?"
Jackson said the AWSA water can be used anywhere in the state. "This is never New Mexico water, but Gila River Indian Community water. It's Arizona water."
Campbell pointed out that if there is a fight over the basins, the people in the eastern part of the state that are on the Ogallala Aquifer would also need water, as the aquifer is expected to run out in about 25 years. "Water will go where it is needed.
"Jal will be out of water within a couple of years, because Texas wells are taking all of the area's water," Jackson said.
Anthony Gutierrez, Grant County planner, said at a County Commission meeting that morning, commissioners Brett Kasten and Ron Hall did not seem sold on the pipeline to Deming project. "They don't want it to leave Grant County. We need a draft of this project, an outline and a good faith effort."
Jackson said a major revision was underway.
Topper Thorpe, GBIC member, said the group has a proposal in the ISC review process, which has two components—storage, which would allow an adequate and dependable supply of water to take care of agricultural needs, as well as endangered species. The second part was more permanent diversion structures. "Would it be possible to incorporate them into the plan?"
"I think the first one already is," Jackson said. "The act allows up to 60,000 acre-feet of storage. Reclamation looked at off-stream storage. The preliminary estimates are up to 55,000 acre-feet to be stored on Mangus Creek and secondary storage on Mogollon Creek."
He pointed out that Mangus Creek has the loach minnow, so the site would require mitigation. "We would use the storage to mitigate and keep water for the loach minnow and the southwestern willow flycatcher. Storage would augment the river and provide enough water for irrigation."
"We're throwing out big ideas at this point, because no site is yet selected," Jackson cautioned. "Bill Evans Lake was going to be on the Mangus. We would mitigate for endangered species with Mogollon Creek, too."
Thorpe asked what would happen with the priority of water. "Say Deming or Hurley needs water bad?"
"If the storages are big enough, I don't think there will be a problem," Jackson said.
"If a diversion structure is built and the water is put to beneficial use, and people are not using groundwater, does that make the groundwater available?" Gutierrez asked.
"By using surface water, you will be saving groundwater," Jackson said. "Surface water is the paycheck and groundwater is the savings. In Santa Fe, they always say: 'water flows up to money.'"
Gerald Schultz, representing state Natural Resource Conservation and Development District activities, asked if Las Cruces was looking at other places to get water.
Jackson replied that the other place the city is looking is at a $75 million proposal to pipe water from the Carlsbad Basin and Salt River Basin. "The Lower Rio Grande District is looking for sources, being us and the eastern part of the state."
Schultz asked if the San Augustin Plains proposal was so Las Cruces would get water.
"The company did a study asking for 3 percent of the recharge and a priority date," Jackson said. "It would build pipelines and sell to the highest bidder. The higher populations are in Texas and Arizona. As populations go up, water gets more valuable. The company is just buying the water to get a priority date. They would not be responsible for supplying water to Magdalena or Las Cruces. As soon as Texas walked in, the company appealed the state's refusals to approve the proposal to the Supreme Court.
"Any water resource is vulnerable," Jackson continued. "Phoenix did a study in the Animas Basin for a pipeline. They walked away with $1,000 an acre-foot, but the city is paying $10,000 an acre-foot to the Gila River Indian Community.
"The state water plan shows that New Mexico needs every drop," Jackson said. "If it goes to Arizona, Texas, will say: 'OK, $10,000 acre-feet just left the state, and we didn't get it."
The rest of the meeting will be continued in a future article.