[Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a two-part series of articles on the New Mexico Central Arizona Project meeting on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. It primarily discusses the business plan.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
As is customary toward the beginning of each New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity meetings, at least one person opposed to the proposed New Mexico Unit, stands to give public input.
Chris Overlock, speaking for himself, said he would be brief: "Maybe you could install toilets everywhere in the four-county region and do other conservation projects to use the CAP water, and then maybe we could shut down the (Silver City) Franks (well) Field. I mean, really, we have to pay attention to our groundwater. And since you'll be buying CAP water, why not just buy it, get a train out of Arizona and haul it to Lordsburg and Deming? One tanker would hold about an acre-foot of water. Build a pipeline, come on, I hope you analyzed those alternatives. I would also suggest in your discussions on high-value crops that you consider growing opium poppies. I understand there's a big demand for that. Thank you." He grinned as he walked away from the podium.
[Editor's Note: Fact check: A train tanker car holds from 15,800 to 33,600 gallons of liquid.]
NM CAP Entity member Ty Bays noted that an acre-foot of water is 325,851.43 gallons.
As two late-comers to the meeting had arrived, making a quorum, the approval of the agenda and the minutes of the last meeting took place. Member Howard Hutchinson had several corrections for the minutes.
As no one else wanted to give input, the meeting moved to the agenda. The first item of old business was to discuss the business plan, being put together by Stantec Engineers. Scott Verhines was the engineer on hand to present the plan.
"We delivered the draft to Anthony (Gutierrez, NM CAP Entity executive director) yesterday," Verhines said. "Our intent is to review this draft and then gather again for a workshop. I gave a brief overview at the July meeting and received input from members. We also took time in July to meet with water users in the Gila Valley and in the Deming area. In the executive summary of the draft, we state what we perceive as the goals of the business plan. You are the intended audience. We want the plan to show how the project can fulfill the proposed action and also provide for future development of projects. This document is not prescribing what they are, but it provides steps to go through in the future to develop the Arizona Water Settlements Act water. It shows how to assess funding and financing and leverage it for other funding. The document also describes how to engage, not only you and your stakeholders and agencies, but also the public and legislators. We make recommendations on communication activities, as well as how the entity can transition over time to a different structure that will fill the needs. This is a living document."
He said in the table of contents, it does not detail the history, but gives a brief overview of the AWSA, as well as including the Southwest New Mexico regional water plan and addressing the Mimbres Basin.
"We show current conditions, and we thought it important to put your project in the context of other projects around New Mexico," Verhines said. "For instance, the San Juan-Chama project that was created 50 years ago. Without it, the Middle Rio Grande Valley would have only about 20 years of water left."
Primarily, the document starts the project as an agriculture-based project. "Is there an opportunity to transition to municipal or industrial if more water is available? How will developing the water affect the economy of the area? The document briefly touches on economic viability."
Verhines said he had served as a water project manager in eastern New Mexico. "So, I put into this document steps to take if the CAP Entity wants to transition from the JPA (joint powers agreement) to another structure and how to do it. This document is thinking about the long term and the challenges you will face. Water projects are exercises in perseverance. The summary and recommendations look at what you will face in the near term, up to two years, in the short term from two to five years and in the long term for more than five years. I included the letter to Reclamation and the joint NEPA leads in the draft. I also included the press release from the Congressional delegation talking about increasing the funding for water projects for Native Americans. When the document talks about hemp operations, it's for if you decide that's what you want to do. The goal of the draft is to give you time to peruse it."
Member Joe Runyan said: "I thought the first reading of the document was great. The CAP water under the Colorado Compact is senior water. We won't be affected by Arizona and California withdrawals."
Entity Attorney Pete Domenici Jr. confirmed that was correct. "We would be senior to Arizona."
Verhines noted that a senior water right has more value. "Junior water rights have more risk."
"Our water is being used and sold in Arizona," Domenici said. "We have to withdraw water under the CUFA (Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement, part of the AWSA), so mostly likely we will be junior to New Mexico adjudicated rights. In New Mexico, we're junior but the replacement water under the Central Arizona Project is senior."
Member Allen Campbell said a study he made on winter runoff shows that the volumes are much larger recently, since the Whitewater-Baldy and other major fires. "The fact is that the point in time when we will be harvesting the water is the time when the greatest increases will be most available. I think we better be looking at that. I think it's egregious not to look at 50-year-old data, with all the environmental data that has changed over the years, because of the lack of grazing. We need to be looking at today. I have my study in a format you can use and adjust. Just like the original data that AECOM used. I think it's important."
Bays commended Verhines for speaking with farmers and ranchers. "I think it's best to talk to them. They are business people. You did a good job with this draft. I read the ecological part and I think a lot more can be said. For instance, the largest population of the Southwest willow flycatcher is in the Gila Valley. They are nesting along the irrigation ditches. Their numbers are all occurring in the highest population of livestock. The Mexican Blackhawk, the yellow-billed cuckoo and the spike dace are also thriving in that part of the valley. I know it's contrary to the environmental talking points. But there are fewer of these species on Forest Service property where there is not production activity. That should be on the EIS. It should be told to the public. The public says a diversion will be detrimental to these species. It simply isn't true. You can see the data."
Hutchinson said: "The current conditions are that there are 11 diversions. But it should also include the thousands of wells that are used for municipal, industrial and agricultural use. I don't know if there are actually 11 in-river diversions. There may be more. The State Engineer's Officer has the accurate statistics of what is being diverted. I think we should be talking in water, instead of in diversion."
Verhines said he recognized that the entity members had just gotten the document. "We're looking forward to receiving comments. Hopefully, you will hold a workshop in the near future to get the comments incorporated into the draft."
Hutchinson said it could take all day tomorrow and the next day to get it done.
"When you're doing the analysis, you're doing it on the proposed action," he said. "I think you should also consider the alternative on the San Francisco. In 2000-02, people in the San Francisco did their own business plan for water use. I don't have confidence that this business plan will fit for the San Francisco and may even be in conflict with ours."
Domenici said he has drafted a letter from himself to Kyle Weaver at the Department of the Interior, with a focus on coordinating activities when he and Gutierrez go to D.C. to request the extension on the record of decision. "It's not clear when the meetings will take place. It's highly preferable to have a workshop soon and to have another draft of this business plan for the meeting. I'm not opposed to a workshop, but the timeline is fairly critical. The new Interstate Stream Commission will also have August and September meetings. We need to re-introduce ourselves. It's important to have this plan for those, too."
After some discussion, it was decided that people could convene at the Grant County Administration Center on Wednesday, Aug 14, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus a special meeting to accept the draft and its changes.
Gutierrez requested a deadline of Friday, Aug. 9, at 5 p.m. for comments to allow for adjustments to the document before the workshop. The comments should be sent to Gutierrez, and he would forward them to Verhines.
Hutchinson requested a red-lined version.
Domenici said some premises were very important for people to look at. "Some are very practical, such as how to get to the record of decision and the timelines to complete everything for the RoD, as well as the design and construction and the timeline for operations. We will need to do testing of components and maybe consider phasing them over a decade to see how high-value crops work. We will have operating costs without revenue. We can look to the New Mexico Unit Fund and the ISC to help fill the gap toward becoming self-sustaining. With new crops, farmers will be transitioning farming techniques. I don't think there is much detail on the San Francisco in here. We will need to glean it from their business plan."
Gutierrez said the San Francisco business plan is part of the JPA.
Domenici continued that the operational transition and operations and maintenance cost is critical. "The EIS has general ideas on the O & M, but this is more specific."
Verhines said he would draw an analogy with the eastern New Mexico project. "All along the way, everybody would say, what is in your plan and timeline. I see that as an important component of this document. It's more of a strategic plan we're trying to weave into a business plan."
Gutierrez noted that all costs are assumptions, and all are conservative operational costs. "I thought they were a little high, but there are a lot of contingencies built in. Until we get the final design and construction, we don't exactly know what costs will look like. As Scott said, it's a living document and will be adjusted accordingly."
Domenici said the document will be signed by engineers. "I'm not sure we need all the members in the document. I think this might be better if there are actual numbers. After the record of decision, we have to show financial viability. I don't want the numbers to be super conservative, especially in operations and maintenance. I think capital costs will be in the construction budget. I think this is a simple project. I would like this to be a practical document."
Campbell said, as someone who has lived along the river and helped with irrigating land since he was 12 years old, "in normal years, everything goes nicely. When it floods, we have problems. I think on maintenance we need not be too conservative. Use a maintenance account as a bank account for bad years. In one flood, all three bridges were not destroyed, but the access to them was. In 1968, the West Fork, the Middle Fork and the main Gila bridges were impassable for months. We need a set-aside safety fund, especially now that so much timber has grown up along the river. In 2013, the Middle Fork was stripped of trees by logs coming down. They made dams 40-feet high and burst. We're so ripe, we will see enormous amounts of timber coming down in floods. There will be logjams and erosion problems. We need to have somewhere around half a million dollars in a contingency fund."
Allred said he could assure everyone that unless they had experienced the floods, they would have no idea of the great amount of logs, debris and rock that comes down the river.
The next article will finish the meeting.