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Southwestern County Commission Alliance met in Reserve; among topics was a regional water project

The Southwestern County Commission Alliance met in Reserve, Feb. 27, and heard from New Mexico Office of the State Engineer Deming Office Manager Charles "Tink" Jackson on a proposal for building a small-diameter pipeline from the Gila River to Deming to utilize 10,000 annual, average acre-feet of water from the Gila Basin and funding for up to $128 million, allocated to the four-county region for Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna by the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act.

Glyn Griffin, Catron County commissioner, said at the beginning of the meeting, that it was the ninth meeting of the organization. "We were formed to address issues that affect all our counties."

Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance executive director, was the only one to speak during public input. "I want to talk about the proposed $25 million pipeline. However, it's hard to be pertinent when the item hasn't been discussed yet. You might consider changing the order of public input."

She said at least some of the Grant County commissioners were not supportive of Sen. John Arthur Smith's proposal for the pipeline extending all the way to Las Cruces.

"We at UGWA support commonsense, non-diversion, cost-effective proposals to keep the Gila River free-flowing," Stevens said. "We support the Regional Water Plan in Grant County; we support effluent reuse projects in Deming and Bayard; and we encourage you to keep all projects on the table. What if there were a problem with only one proposal, and then there would be no water and no money? This proposal is expensive and doesn't count exchange costs."

Alliance members considered a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the wolf recovery area proposed expansion.

Darr Shannon, Hidalgo County commissioner, said although the commissioners realize the proposal has been pulled, "we want to write to Dr. (Benjamin) Tuggle because the project will come back, and Fish and Wildlife does not include local governments in its decisions." She read the letter, which asked that the agency include a full-blown environmental impact statement, as well as an economic impact statement. "These animals are misrepresented as Mexican wolves, although they are in reality hybrids," the letter alleged.
"Even though the project expansion has been withdrawn, we need to keep letting Dr. Tuggle know how opposed we are to this project," Shannon said.

Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz said there is also the feeling in Luna County to oppose the project. "Fish and Wildlife never created a study. All the water in the expansion area is man-provided, and there is no prey for the wolves. I don't understand why they want to mistreat and abuse these animals."

Griffin said: "I wonder where the Humane Society is."

Catron County Commissioner Bucky Allred said the rules and regulations are complicated and hard to understand, but the way he understands the proposal is that when Canadian wolves come in, it will be critical habitat for them, and ranchers will not be allowed to protect their cattle. "The biggest point I want to make is that the Apaches have wolves on their land, and the elders never wanted the wolves on the reservation."

Grant County Commissioner Gabriel Ramos, SWCCA chairman, said his opinion was that, as long as people are unemployed, starving and homeless, he could not support spending more than $650,000 per wolf. "I would rather use the money to help people."

Commissioners approved sending the letter.

The next item of business was to consider a letter to the Gila National Forest requesting an update on the status of the Catwalk.

"We've already sent one letter and have heard nothing back," Shannon said. She read the second letter, which stated that the Catwalk, having been disassembled, is a "huge hardship in Catron County, with a huge economic impact."

Allred said he, too, had requested being kept informed. "Monday. I was at the supervisor's office. Basically what we hear is dragging feet. One-eighth of a mile is open to the octagon. We don't want a Rolls Royce, we just want the Catwalk back."

He said excuses that were given to him included liability, flooding, safety, the season and engineering concerns.

"The liability is on them, because they removed it, even after the BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) Team said there was no threat for flooding," Allred said. "We need it open, and we need to find a way to keep it open."

The letter will be sent.

Shannon brought up the agenda item on signing in at the meetings.

"Particularly in Silver City, some people do not sign in, yet they want to speak," she said. "At certain meetings, including one in Deming, people don't want to sign in."

Ramos suggested the creation of a policy that if a person wishes to speak during public input, he or she will be required to sign in.

Another item of business considered was a detox facility to be placed in the former, now unused, Grant County jail.

"Part of it is in good shape," Ramos said. "Detox money is available. We have to do something to help people who are addicted. Drugs cause families to fall apart. We would like support to turn our old jail into a detox facility. If another county has a better facility, let us know."

Catron County Commissioner Richard McGuire asked if it would be a county project.

Ramos said Grant County already shares with Luna and Hidalgo counties on its jails.

"Would the clients receive professional counseling?" Allred asked. "We don't have any facility here."

Ramos said the clients would receive counseling. "The problem is they get out of jail and go back into the same environment."

Diaz said the problem with most jails is those addicted cannot be segregated and helped with detox and counseling. "We would agree to the proposal."

Fred Huff of Congressman Steve Pearce's office attended the meeting.

Ramos asked if Pearce would be willing to divert wolf money to a detox facility. "I think Pearce would be willing to help," Huff said.

Allred said: "These kids struggle and such a facility would be a great thing."

McGuire pointed out that it was not just young people, "although I know there is a problem in the schools."

Shannon asked how much money would be required for the project.

Ramos said most of the funding would go to paying for counselors. "Part of the jail is OK. We would have to tear down the old part."

Griffin and McGuire supported the project, and Ramos asked for a draft of a letter for the next meeting.

Shannon brought up the problem Hidalgo County is having with its 140-bed new jail. "It costs us $104,000 a month, and we average only eight to 15 inmates during the month. The jail is eating our lunch. We have talked about changing it into a juvenile facility, but changes would have to be made. The governor had $2.6 million on her agenda that we thought was ours, but now all of a sudden it's gone. Everything is top notch, but we have just about exhausted trying to get more inmates, although we're still working on it."

Ramos suggested every commissioner email the area state representatives to find out where the $2.6 million went.

Luna County Manager Kelly Kuenstler said: "We have an accredited facility for juveniles but it's very expensive, and you have to work with Children, Youth and Families Department. I don't see it as your solution."

Shannon said the jail was going to break the county. Kuenstler suggested trying to get Arizona inmates or from Portales or the eastern part of New Mexico. Ramos said the jail issue was discussed before at one of the SWCCA's first meetings.

"I know a lot of our juveniles are sent elsewhere," Ramos said. "I'm not sure why we skip the Luna County facility."

Diaz said the county had had a Boot Camp program that was quite successful until the economy turned down. Kuenstler said the detention center is currently a holding facility for juveniles pre-adjudication. "I'm not sure if there is a limit, but the majority are held for only a short time. Probably the only way to get certified is for pre-adjudication."

A resolution declaring support of New Mexico Regional Water Supply projects was next on the agenda. NM Office of the State Engineer Deming Office Manager Charles "Tink" Jackson spoke to the issue.

He said the resolution is the same as the original Deming resolution to pipe 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila River to Deming.  He said Sen. John Arthur Smith's $25 million project to take water to Las Cruces, which is in front of the legislature, is in addition to one for $75 million to take water from the Carlsbad and Salt River basins to Las Cruces.

"The bigger puzzles are the three lawsuits attacking New Mexico groundwater supplies," Jackson said. "The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation claims the ground water below the Elephant Butte Dam is still project water even after it percolates into the ground. New Mexico law states groundwater is New Mexico public water."

He explained the Elephant Butte Irrigation District is a Texas entity, with 60 percent owned by Texas users. New Mexico said it would not agree that groundwater, after it percolates past plant roots, is still EBID water. Texas filed suit against New Mexico for everything in the Lower Rio Grand Basin.

If New Mexico should lose, it would be a $1 billion impact to the Las Cruces area. Jackson said wells on the New Mexico side of the border near Carlsbad are also drawing down water faster than Texas is.

"Smith's bill to pipe water from the Gila River to Las Cruces was more of a wake-up call to 'do something or we in the Legislature will,'" Jackson said. "We came up with a proposal to combine a bunch of the projects already being considered by the Interstate Stream Commission (to utilize up to 14,000 average annual acre-feet of water and up to $128 million in funding allocated to the four-county region of Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna by the Arizona Water Settlements Act)."

Jackson said discussions in Deming are proceeding to make sure the area uses 10,000 acre-feet by providing storage for the excess floodwaters in the Gila River.

"The Act allows for 10,000 acre-feet for consumptive use in the Gila Basin and storage up to 60,000 acre-feet, which would provide water during dry years," Jackson said. "We can only take the excess floodwaters up to 350 cubic feet per second. The Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement does not allow the natural flow of the river to be taken and stored."

The continuation of the discussion and the rest of the meeting will be concluded in the next article.

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