By Mary Alice Murphy

The first item of major business on the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission agenda at its meeting on Feb. 7, 2018, was to hear updates from the ditches represented on the board.

Wendel Hann of the Gila Farm Ditch said the ditch and the diversion are in good shape, although some cleaning needs to be done. "We had to spend $9,000 last year to rebuild the diversion. The seasonal precipitation forecast for this year is dire. It is red on the prediction map all over the Southwest. All the precipitation is going north. We need to build up subsoil moisture while we can. I'm guess we will go on terms [voluntary sharing of scarce water resources among ditches and users on a ditch] around the first of June, if not before."

Topper Thorpe of the Fort West Ditch said the ditch is in decent shape, but always needs maintenance and clean up at the head of the ditch. "I echo what Wendel said. Yesterday morning, we were within 6 cfs [cubic feet per second] of the 90-year low for this time of year."

He said he recently attended the National Cattleman's convention and talked to a pioneer in long-term weather projection. "He said we are in a La Niña, but we have the possibility of an El Niño as we go into summer. But a ridge of high pressure keeps directing everything to the north."

In the Fort West Ditch annual meeting, "we talked about when to go on terms. We may need to start out that way. That's the reason why the Arizona Water Settlements Act water is so important. With it, we can store water to supplement our needs. Using that water continues to be our top priority."

B.J. Agnew of the Upper Gila Ditch said the water in the river flows by his house "pretty good sometimes. We haven't held our annual meeting yet. It's in the conceptual stage."

David Ogilvie, GBIC president, asked the meeting guest, Matt Wiseman of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, for a report and to talk about the water prospects for the growing season.

"We are in the ending years of the Farm Bill and don't know if it will be continued," Wiseman said. "We have the acequia program statewide, and we're doing some acequia work on the Grijalva and Heredia acequias in the Mimbres Valley. They are trying to get permanent diversions, while allowing fish passage. There is money available and I think it could be something to help your ditches. As you get the ditches fixed up, EQIP (environmental quality incentives program) can help individual ditch owners with their efficiency. In Virden, they are primarily using groundwater and can't irrigate with surface water any more. We can help with dollars for efficient irrigation.

"The NRCS has a snow survey for the basin," Wiseman continued. "In Catron County, it's D3, which is really low." He said he could send the full snow report by email to those who wanted to see it.

At https://wcc.sc.egov.usda.gov/reports/UpdateReport.html?report=New+Mexico , the percentages are low for southwest New Mexico. The San Francisco Basin is at 13 percent of normal; the Gila Basin at 12 percent of normal; and the Mimbres Basin at 13 percent of normal.

Wiseman talked about a device along Bear Creek that blew out. Cody Robertson at the Silver City NRCS office recommended it be fixed. He showed a graphic of a revetement fence, which could aid in the repair. "I want you to tell me what you decide and whether you need NRCS planning help."

"We are looking for funding," Ogilvie said. "It's an ongoing issue. The exposure south of Bear Creek has the potential for flooding effects on homes. Our concerns are to look at and get funding, but it's up to the individual ditches. Fort West has limited funding."

Hann said he and Esker Mayberry got cornered from other ditch users about concerns that "we are in drought. Usually when we're in drought, it is usually followed by a summer flood, which could impact downstream homes."

Thorpe said his recollection is that, in a discussion with engineers, they thought a revetement fence would work. "In the meantime, we have access to some posts that would work as part of the fence. Funding is critical, but it should be relatively inexpensive."

Ogilvie said, with the engineering features, "we don't know where to begin to assign costs. Maybe we could get some engineering help from the NRCS."

Thorpe said he had talked to the Army Corps of Engineers, and they didn't think it would be a problem and would not hold things up. "We want the type of engineering that is as simple and economical as possible."

Wiseman said it needs to be done, because downstream, it becomes a human hazard. "Then there's liability or we way over-engineer to protect people. I raised the issue with the Corps of Engineers about putting the fence into the original diking, but they are taking no responsibility, and the Corps is not putting in any funding."

Hann said it seems like the county should be protecting its residents. "We have a siphon below the Gila Farm. It seems like if it's a threat to residents, it should be a county issue."

Anthony Gutierrez, former planner for Grant County and now New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity executive director, said, when the Corps does hazard or infrastructure, it may put the responsibility on the county. "Big Dry Creek when water came down and washed away the levee, the county was responsible. We may be able to get the document from the Corps."

Wiseman noted that it is on Freeport McMoRan Inc. land.

Ogilvie said the Big Dry Creek incident was 300 feet from the state highway. Every time it blew out, the Department of Transportation would have to come back and fix it.

Don Stailey said the last time he met with the Corps, "we walked the dike until it gets into the ditches and the Corps said it couldn't do anything."

"We need to go to the Corps and get the information," Thorpe said. "The response I got was, you do the work. Don't include us."

Ogilvie said he would talk to Grant County Commission Chairman Billy Billings, who represents the Upper Gila Valley, to see what the county can do. "The siphon that's there for the ditches, the levee has been protecting."

Stailey asked if it would be possible to get the DOT District 1 engineer to present the revetement fence to the DOT.

Martha Cooper of The Nature Conservancy and a ditch user said Trent Botkin is the NM DOT statewide natural resource coordinator worked on the Iron Bridge project. "I presume you also need to contact the District 1 Engineer Trent Doolittle."

Gutierrez said the Iron Bridge project was under an emergency declaration from the President. "It doesn't free up funding, but it allows getting the permitting done. We used local funding, with no state or federal funding other than use of DOT equipment."

He also gave the NM CAP Entity update.

"We submitted our proposed action," Gutierrez said. "With permanent diversion improvements to the ditches, we have calculated storage at 2,300 acre-feet. Occam Engineers helped us get closer to 3,000 acre-feet. In the proposed action, the utilization of infrastructure will be to store AWSA and adjudicated water. Most of the structures are on Freeport-owned property and they haven't washed out. We will use parts that are not being farmed, with an option for pumping. There are still a lot of analyses to do. At the meeting yesterday, we added a diversion on the San Francisco and storage near Virden. We have run into problems in Santa Fe on the funding. We hope by this time next year, we will have a draft EIS to see the environmental impact."

He said he had a meeting in Santa Fe with The Nature Conservancy. "It was a good meeting. We were tossing ideas back and forth on the diversion. At the end of February, we will look at diversions on the Pecos. We are looking for a stable structure that provides for diversion and fish passage."

Gutierrez said he ran into the ISC concern about the NM CAP and the GBIC working on diversion designs that were similar and duplicating efforts, "but I don't think we are. A representative raised some significant concerns about the amount of storage we are looking at. I think even that amount would be beneficial. The cost-benefit ratio is not where I want it to be, but the construction costs fit into the construction fund availability, without having to battle about the New Mexico Unit fund."

He mentioned the model that former ISC director and retired engineer Norm Gaume had presented to the CAP Entity the previous day "He modeled a 58-day period from May through the end of June and how it could not meet needs. We're not looking at providing the full amount of water but only supplemental water. Hopefully, we can move ahead with NEPA. The notice of intent to do NEPA will come out the end of March into April."

"In our proposed action, we have five recharge wells, which can potentially provide 500 more acre-feet of water," Gutierrez said. He said Gaume stressed the need for more efficient irrigation systems. "But the ditch system is a huge part of our ecosystem. We can use all the ideas we can get."

Cooper said she agreed with Ty Bays, representing the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, at the CAP meeting. "The ditches are habitat and are where the systems get access to water when the river is low."

Gutierrez suggested the bottom of the ditch being lined, while letting the banks draw in the seepage for the ecosystem. "I didn't want to eliminate everything for the NEPA."

Hann said there is a great deal he could do for better distribution of the water across the pasture, including seeding with more drought-tolerant grasses.

The next item addressed GBIC funding. Ogilvie said in November, the GBIC was turned down for authorization under the ISC allocation for engineering. "We ran through the money with Tolesto (engineering firm). The ISC had concerns about the similarities of our project and the CAP Entity's. At the Jan. 19 ISC meeting, we had Dan Collier of Telesto with us. Anthony was there for the CAP Entity. Our request for an additional $100,000 for final design was awarded."

"As it relates to that, I need to thank Dave and B.J.," Thorpe said. "There were a number of questions addressed that clarified things, especially in combination with Anthony's presentation. There are some significant differences. We, as the GBIC, can work as acequias, but the CAP Entity can't. I would like to see the project done before I die. One of the critical concerns we have faced going to the NRCS and the state Acequias association is that we don't have final design. We will work with Telesto to get that as quickly as possible. We will be knocking on all funding doors. (The Bureau of) Reclamation is aware of our project."

Wiseman said Reclamation has its WaterSmart program. "If you can get your design, you can get extra money from NRCS."

Gutierrez told the GBIC members that the CAP Entity is considering amending the Joint Powers Agreement to allow funding for other types of projects. "We are trying to limit it to matching dollars, so as not to deplete the New Mexico Unit Fund."

"We're at 10 percent design," Ogilvie said. "We require a more defined design when we go to the NRCS or other funders. We have a certain amount of funding, but it doesn't cover for the three ditches. We have to come up with something more definitive."

He asked for an update on the state Acequias meeting. Linda Stailey said the meeting was more meaningful to them this year, because "we were more prepared. Northern New Mexico is completely different from us down here. A lot of the discussions were in Spanish. The most meaningful part was the presentation by the acequia attorney. He can represent any acequia in the state. The 21st Century acequia powers are changing. They are focused on water as a scarce natural resource. It is a form of government that allows the right to participate in politics. Acequias are local government bodies. The water rights in the state are being re-adjudicated through regional organizations or individual ditches. I encourage you to put your water rights to work somewhere. Inventory your water rights and compare them to the Office of the State Engineer's records. We need to create a regional entity to receive the Adjudication Committee. Acequias have to talk to one another. I'm proud to say we're doing that right here."

Don Stailey said what impressed him was that "you don't own the water. You own the right to use the water. The state owns the water."

Linda Stailey said water rights are defined by elements, such as dates and place. "New Mexico adopted prior appropriation, which is only enough water to meet the most urgent needs."

Don Stailey said he thinks the Acequia association is keeping an eye on the AWSA. "We got an email asking us if we were aware of the bill Howie Morales was promoting to take $50 million out of the New Mexico Unit Fund. The meeting was educational for me."

"Now we will dive into the meat of the meeting," Ogilvie announced. "Telesto came up with three engineering design proposals. A rock-weir diversion system, a concrete low-head system similar to the one that diverts to Bill Evans Lake and a Coanda screen system."

He said Telesto created a matrix and weighted the designs. "All have the potential to work in our locations. I don't know what each system or the diversion to feed more than one system would cost. What we need to do tonight boils down to users to come up with the direction for Telesto. We'll talk about the positives and the negatives. One might be more aesthetic and better for the environment, but not be as stable or sturdy. We've got to come up with the design feature to pursue."

Ogilvie said there are commonalities among all three. "We need to consider what's depth to bedrock and will it work with the funding we have. Geomorphology and geologic studies say they can be plausible. Everyone has preferences, but we need to come to a group consensus."

Cooper said she thought Telesto would give the group more information. "Do we have to pick the design before the location?"

Thorpe said: "We felt like we needed to have a discussion and see what the reaction is to the three designs. We have to come up with a scope to determine the final design. From a cost perspective, they are quite similar. The Coanda screen is the most expensive, but it is reliable for a diversion and easily maintained. It is cost-effective and works in the Gila ecosystem. It has sufficient carrying capacity for current uses. We want to hear personal preferences as long as they fit the criteria. If we find out one doesn't meet the criteria, we may have to set it aside."

Hann asked if the location is set. "Should we make that decision first?"

Ogilvie said: "We have $1,250,000 left. It leaves us about $1 million which doesn't fund more than one diversion. I prefer that we pick a diversion that feeds more than one ditch. Hypothetically each element can work at the three sites we are looking at. There will have to be some infrastructure to stabilize it no matter where we put it. We didn't come up with a design to fit the three ditches. But two, yes. One could provide water to the Fort West and the Upper Gila ditches."

Hann said the risk is higher at the Gila Farm ditch. Jerry Donaldson of Telesto said they wouldn't know until they do a test to bedrock.

"My gut feeling is that if we can get two in one, we can have a push up dam at Gila Farm," Hann said. "We can still work together."

"If we can determine one design element, even if it provides to only two ditches, it will not preclude the third leg," Ogilvie said.

Gutierrez said, if he were an irrigator, he would design in the upper portion of the river. "If you have a structure that maintains a certain stream flow, would it have an effect on the Gila Farm ditch? It might benefit the lower ditch system."

"My gut feeling is that return flow is feeding our ditch," Hann said. He is on the Gila Farm Ditch.

Donaldson said the diversion is going to meet the water need to irrigate the required acreage. "It's not a matter of diverting more water. It's recharge from the irrigation storing water for a short time in the fields."

"I think we can design it, so if we need to, we can turn water toward Gila Farm," Don Stailey said.

"Maybe even into Winn Canyon," Agnew said.

Hann asked if it would help to settle on one option. "Could we tell the engineers to focus on a location to serve two ditches with one diversion?"

Thorpe said bedrock is important when deciding on the location. "There are a number of factors not firmly decided. Yes, we can look at the two to one, but we will have to phase it in."

Agnew said, for looking at maintenance, he didn't think they could put large enough rocks in to prevent floods from carrying them downstream.

Don Stailey asked which would cost the least in maintenance.

Cooper asked what the trade-offs were in maintenance. "Jeff Riley (engineer in the Phoenix Office of Reclamation) always comes in for massive federal projects. I think it's about process and a matter of sedimentation and fish passage. The Nature Conservancy preference is the cross-vane weir."

Thorpe said Telesto had given them the three options. "If I were making the decision, I would set aside the Coanda screen."

Cooper said she remembered in the discussion on the low head option across the river, there wasn't enough money to build it across the river.

Donaldson noted that for the Bill Evans Lake diversion, a low-head diversion across the river, the only maintenance over the years was having to go in with equipment and turn the river to put it back by the structure. "It's a low-maintenance structure." It was noted that the visible structure across the river at the site is actually a pipeline to McCauley land.

Cooper asked if there were more velocity and power at the top of the valley as compared to where the Bill Evans diversion is located, but no one had an answer.

Ogilvie said the Coanda had the lowest scores for fish passage, is the most expensive, least environmentally friendly. "I move we remove the Coanda." It was approved.

Thorpe said things needed to be included in the scope of work, "if we get down to a single diversion to feed two ditches."

Hann moved to develop the diversion to feed two ditches and look for the more stable location. "A million bucks needs to be good enough." It was approved.

Thorpe said Telesto would be in touch with the CAP Entity so as not to duplicate information. Ogilvie echoed that and said, "so they may be complementary."

Donaldson said, with the GBIC taking the lead and determining the basic location, it will be on track for doing the permitting.

"We'll totally benefit from that," Gutierrez said.

Thorpe noted the common features had not yet been defined for the final design. "They can result in a fatal flaw for design or for location."

Ogilvie said if large enough sized rock cannot be found nearby, that may be a fatal flaw for the cross-vane weir. "The scope can be a short laundry list."

"We have to get cracking on the scope of work," Thorpe said. "Maybe we should have another meeting to share the scope of work for comments within the next month."

Hann said he kind of remembers a rock weir, where it is concrete reinforced.

"Let us know what we need to address in the scope," Thorpe said

After the discussion, the group passed its annual Open Meetings Act resolution.

The next meeting will be held as needed.

Live from Silver City

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