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AWSA discussed at Natural History of the Gila Symposium Part 2

Interstate Stream Commission Deputy Director Craig Roepke titled the second presentation on the Arizona Water Settlements Act, "Opportunity or Threat?"

He spoke at the Natural History of the Gila Symposium, held at Western New Mexico University Thursday through Saturday.

"A lot of folks think one way and a lot the other," Roepke explained. "The four-county region (of southwest New Mexico) stands to gain an additional annual average of 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila Basin, which includes the Gila and San Francisco rivers, and up to $128 million in federal funding. That is a 47% increase.

"Even before the AWSA passed in 2004, the Interstate Stream Commission developed a policy for using the water from the Gila River," Roepke said.

He read highlighted portions of the policy: "recognize the unique and valuable ecology of the Gila Basin" … "the Commission will apply the best available science" … "while also considering the historic uses of and future demands for water in the Basin,..."

In New Mexico, users can divert and consume AWSA water from the basin. The Secretary of the Interior has to replace that water with Central Arizona Project water for downstream users. "In the settlement, we're getting Gila River water," he said. “The Secretary replaces it with water from Arizona’s allotment on the Colorado River.”

"The guts of the settlement are minimum bypass flows," Roepke said. "Users of the AWSA water can never take more than 350 (cubic feet per second) at a time, and no water may be taken until there is at least 150 cfs flow. That is double the median flow of 73 cfs. Roepke said although no one can divert AWSA water when the river is below 150 cfs, "for all practical purposes, it will be at 175 cfs before diversion would be practical."

He explained that three or four proposals for mainstem dams on the Gila River are "no longer in the mix. None made it past the first Tier of evaluations. There will be no dam on the Gila. The maximum diversion of 350 cfs is to protect the flood functionality of the river. We also arbitrarily reduced the 18,000 average annual acre-feet of water allocated to New Mexico in the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act, to 14,000 acre-feet, with 10,000 from the Gila River and 4,000 from the San Francisco River."

From the final 45 proposals presented to the ISC, 16 were chosen for further study. They include projects:

• Four municipal effluent reuse;

• Three agricultural conservation;

• One municipal conservation;

• Three diversion and storage; and

• Five watershed improvement/restoration.

Of the last one, Roepke said this year's fire might have taken care of some of those projects. Additional studies will be done on agricultural conservation; wetlands; municipal conservation; The Nature Conservancy request to study AWSA diversions using their Indicators of Hydrological Alterations; assessments of proposed ecological, engineering, economic impacts; and climate change.

Public meetings are held at least quarterly. An input group with representatives from local governments, businesses, environmental groups, and farming and ranching delve into the projects and give their input to the ISC. The various interests chose their own representatives.

"There has been a controversy about whether the public can attend the Input Group meetings," Roepke said. "We tried to come to consensus, but couldn't get it. We are working on a protocol for middle ground."

A website has been set up— http://www.nmawsa.org— to keep the public informed of draft and final scopes of work. Discussions may also take place on the site, by joining groups.

One threat to the river is the fact that portions of it dry up almost every year.

"In July 2011, we didn’t see return flows until well below diversions," Roepke said. "Most years on the Gila, you see drying, with the majority due to irrigation diversions. That is not good, I don't think, for endangered species.

"However, with storage, water can be returned to the river for endangered species," he continued. "Water in the river can be extended with storage water available. Also people could take water out of the storage ponds, rather than diverting from the river when it gets low."

Another threat is development. He cited the Galisteo River in Santa Fe, which used to be a perennial river, and now rarely has water in it, mainly due to development upstream.

"All houses take water," Roepke said. "Currently in the Gila Valley, there is high-water use with low-value crops. If farmers could switch to low-water use and high-value crops it would benefit them and the river."

He suggested a conservation easement for some portions of the valley.

"Most farms in the Gila Valley are supported by a second job," Roepke pointed out. "That makes it attractive to sell the land to developers."

He pointed out that high-value crops require investment, but those high-value crops do not tolerate drought periods, as alfalfa does.

"You need storage to buffer through drought periods," he said. "Right now it's a choice, irrigation for farming or leave the water in the river. You can’t always have both. Storage could help keep water in the river for the fishes and help farmers at the same time."

A questioner asked if it were true that if users take the water, they have to pay yearly.

"We divert the water, and the delivery costs for what we divert and consume must be paid for, because the Secretary of the Interior has to pump that much to the Gila River Indian Community," Roepke replied. "Right now, the cost is from $100 to $150 an acre-foot."

Another audience member said that studies show the Colorado River will not be able to meet current demands.

Roepke said the 1968 Act gives New Mexico's exchange water the senior priority, and it is less than 1% of the water going down the CAP. "Before you can shut off New Mexico's diversion, you have to cut off Phoenix and Tucson."

An audience member said it seemed to her that with only a certain amount of dollars, a diversion could not be done without the entire $128 million, so the rest of the projects would be off the table.

Roepke said a project would likely use all the money plus some more. "So what will be done with the rest of the dollars? I'm glad I don't have to make those decisions. The Interstate Stream Commission will make them."

"The ISC will have to protect the ecology while meeting water needs," Roepke continued.

The same audience member said it seemed as if the issue is primarily agriculture. "I hope a cost/benefit analysis will be done, because I haven't been able to figure out how paying for the water will let there be any profit."

"We have been asked by stakeholders to look at the value of water in the future," Roepke said. "I tell new engineers to look at the value of water projects 60 years from now. In 1957, Santa Fe and Albuquerque bought into the San Juan-Chama diversion. Since 1960, they have been paying $250 per acre-foot every year for water that they are just now using. Without that water, they’d be in trouble today."

A questioner asked whether the types of diversions would be smaller or bigger.

"The options include large and small off-stream storage, as well as infiltration galleries," Roepke said. "We have asked the Bureau of Reclamation to look at the differences of smaller and larger storage."

The next article will cover Allyson Siwik's presentation, giving the conservation perspective on the AWSA.

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