Allyson Siwik, Gila Conservation Coalition executive director, gave the conservation viewpoint on the Arizona Water Settlements Act at the Natural History of the Gila Symposium held Thursday through Saturday at Western New Mexico University.
She explained that the coalition is a partnership of the Gila Resources Information Project, of which she is also director, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance (she pointed out Donna Stevens, director) and the Center for Biological Diversity.
"We will decide by the end of 2014 whether we will use the (14,000 annual average acre-feet from the Gila Basin) water or not," Siwik said. "Using it has a profound impact from an ecological perspective and even a moral one. The loach minnow and spikedace are now endangered species. Doubling the diversions stresses them."
She questioned whether it was possible to balance the human and ecological needs. "Yeah, I think we can do it," Siwik said. "It is our responsibility to do it for the future. We have to provide cost-effective water, while preserving the river."
Siwik said New Mexico has lost 90 percent of its riparian areas. She showed a table reviewing decades of uses of riparian areas, including irrigation and livestock, which are consumptive values and the ecosystem and recreation as non-consumptive values. Also included on the table were non-use values, such as culture and heritage.
"I hope the use and non-use values will factor into the decisions," she said.
She asked the question: "What about the Gila—the 'last free-flowing river' in the state? It has unique attributes, with 350 species of birds, including the largest colony of the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher in the Gila Valley."
Gila River water is used for agriculture and mining, and to a lesser extent for domestic use. Recreation is important, because the Gila National Forest receives a million visitors a year, and the Gila River is contributing to that tourism and recreation.
She said people make household decisions based on natural amenities, including dark skies, national forests and free-flowing rivers.
"With the AWSA, we have a choice, to paraphrase Shakespeare: To divert or not to divert? That is the question," Siwik said.
To help make the decision, future needs must be considered. The $66 million dollars allocated to the area could be used for any water supply demand.
"There is no demonstrated need for Gila River Water," Siwik alleged. "I think current supplies are sufficient to meet current demands. Silver City and Deming say they have sufficient water to meet needs. Silver City has not put in a diversion proposal. During the past 40 years, Deming has bought up farms, and will transfer the rights for municipal needs."
She addressed the costs of a Gila River Diversion, and said it would be "expensive for a big diversion. It would cost $1.7 million a year to use the water, with costs at an average $122 an acre-foot."
Other costs include:
• Construction costs at an estimated $325 million plus;
• AWSA subsidy covers only 40 percent of capital costs; and
• Operating costs of the diversion at $5.6 million a year.
"The diversion alternative is 16 times more expensive than conservation, acquiring water rights and drilling new wells," Siwik said. "A big diversion and pumping the water to a large storage area and then over the Continental Divide to somewhere else would involve huge energy demands and costs. If the subsidy is 40 percent, who makes up the rest of the cost?
"No end user has been defined apart from the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission," Siwik said. "It's still an open question. Can people afford the water and are they willing to pay for it?"
She continued with environmental concerns.
"We're concerned by adding on another threat and how it will impact the hydrograph," Siwik said. "More important to the hydrograph than minimal flow are frequency and seasonality of floods. The Consumptive Use and Forbearance Act (which sets parameters for diverting water) is not federally enforceable."
She cited non-diversion alternatives, such as municipal conservation and agricultural conservation. Others include the Grant County regional water system; the Wastewater Treatment Plant water reuse alternatives from Bayard, Deming and Silver City, for which Silver City is applying for return flow credit; and watershed restoration, including wetlands restoration.
Siwik said municipal conservation would bring an $11 savings per acre-foot; agricultural conservation, up to $500; and $100 to $300 for sustainable groundwater.
"They are very cost-effective," Siwik said. "The AWSA provides us with a rare opportunity to balance human and environmental needs. With non-diversion alternatives, we can do it. I worry water will go out of the region. We don't want that, but if there is no water to divert, why spend millions?"
An audience member asked, supposing a diversion structure gets built, would not times of drought justify it?
Siwik said the National Environmental Policy Act process would be a huge effort to pass.
Another audience member said it seemed to her that with the initial cost, the yearly cost of operations and the yearly cost of purchasing the water, a diversion would not happen. What if someone came in and said we'll pay it and then the water's gone? "That's one of two hurdles with a diversion. Then, 15 to 30 percent of the reservoir would be lost to evaporation. That's 3,000 to 6,000 acre-feet a year. "
Siwik said she also sees two hurdles, the cost hurdle and the Endangered Species Act hurdle. "That's why the Mangas alternative, and the Hooker and Conner dams were not implemented. Water rates would have gone up eight times, they figured then. It's different this time with the subsidy."
"What about the ecological benefit of having storage water to benefit the ecology?" an audience member asked.
"At the risk of sounding flippant, are we going to improve on nature?" Siwik asked. "I understand the perspective, but I think it will hurt the river to help it in another way."