Editor's Note: This is part 3 of the Southwest County Commission Alliance meeting of Nov. 28, held in Silver City.
Allyson Siwik, Gila Resources Information Project executive director and Gila Conservation Coalition director, gave a presentation on the groups' mission to protect a free-flowing Gila River and the wilderness characteristics of the river.
"By the end of 2014, New Mexico will decide how to use the water and funding allocated to the area by the Arizona Water Settlements Act," Siwik said. "We believe it is possible to balance environmental alternatives and meet the needs for everyone. New Mexico has lost 90 percent of its riparian areas. The Gila River has no mainstem dam, and has the largest community of native fish, including three endangered species. It also has the largest southwest willow flycatcher population."
Above the Upper Box, the river has been given a Resource No. 1 designation, which is the highest possible, according to Siwik. The river provides water to agricultural and mining interests, as well as eco-system services, including the aesthetic value and recreation, which is important to tourism. She cited statistics of one million visitors to the Gila National Forest each year. The Gila River is an important part of the forest, she said. "Any degradation will affect that number of visitors."
She said the river and the forest provide economic development of $48 million to Grant County, according to New Mexico tourist statistics.
"We have the desire to pass on a healthy eco-system to future generations," Siwik said. "It is part of our cultural heritage."
She explained that the AWSA, signed into law in 2004, settled Indian water rights claims and allocated 14,000 additional acre-feet of water to southwest New Mexico. Federal funding is $66 million to meet any water supply demand and is non-reimbursable, meaning it does not have to be repaid.
An additional $34 million to $62 million, depending on interest rates and growth of the fund, can be used for a New Mexico Unit. The exchange agreement in the AWSA requires that for the area to use the 14,000 acre-feet of water, the users must pay to the Central Arizona Project the costs to deliver the equivalent amount of water to downstream senior water rights holders in Arizona. In 2012, those costs are $122 per acre-foot, which equals almost $2 million in annual costs for the 14,000 average annual acre-feet of water.
Siwik pointed out those costs do not include construction costs of a unit. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is looking at diversion alternatives. There are three locations proposed for storage, with varying storage alternatives from a large diversion to small ponds.
"However, no end users have been identified," Siwik said.
Alliance Chairman Gabriel Ramos asked how many acre-feet of water were going to Arizona now.
She could not immediately answer the question, but said New Mexico has a depletion allowance of 31,000 acre-feet, but is using only 27,000 acre-feet.
Siwik alleged that plans for diversion are "fatally flawed, because there is no demonstrated need in southwest New Mexico for Gila River water; current supplies are sufficient to meet demand; no municipalities support diversion; and there is public opposition to diversions. She said that for the next 40 years, Silver City and Deming have enough water to meet their needs.
She said Deming pulled its diversion proposal because of cost. The diversion proposals that remain under consideration by the Interstate Stream Commission include that of the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission and a Hidalgo County diversion. "No one has stepped up to the plate to use the water. It's expensive because only 40 percent of capital costs for construction are funded. Who will foot the bill? The end water user will pay the exchange costs. The Connor Dam proposal failed because the Silver City Mayor said he couldn't pay back the construction costs."
She cited construction costs of at least $325 million, and operating costs of a unit upwards of $5.6 million a year.
"The diversion alternative is 16 times more expensive than conservation and acquiring new water rights or drilling new wells," Siwik said. "The Endangered Species Act is a huge hurdle for a diversion. Doubling water use would put the fish in dire straits."
Proposed non-diversion alternatives to meet future water needs include municipal and agricultural conservation, the Grant County Regional Water System, reuse of the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant effluent, and watershed and wetlands restoration.
Siwik pointed out that 16 projects are undergoing scrutiny by the ISC.
Silver City is seeking from AWSA funding $15 million, about half the cost of setting up the regional water system, to serve 26,000 county residents.
"The Gila Conservation Coalition supports balanced, fair, fiscally responsible non-diversion alternatives," Siwik said. "Don't put taxpayers at risk."
Ramos asked if, as an example, 30,000 acre-feet of water were going to Arizona, would users be charged for the 15,000 feet that was kept.
Siwik said there would be no charge with present usage, only if the additional 14,000 acre-feet were utilized.
Ramos said the cost estimates had not been put forth as much as they had at the meeting.
"There has not been enough public discussion about these costs and whether people can pay for this water," Siwik said.
Catron County Commissioner Hugh B. McKeen, alliance member, pointed out the group was not an "all-powerful board. We can only make recommendations. I went to meetings for seven years, and they were a waste of time. It's not New Mexico's water. We would have to pay rent forever. But now, the projects are in the hands of the Interstate Stream Commission. I don't know of anything we can do."
He said that the only time the area could even take the water was when the river was flooding. "Why are we against taking flood water that may cause damage downstream? In the 1960s and 1970s, I saw the destruction. Floodwaters caused more damage to the environment than anything you want to do. I'm as frustrated as you. As far as I'm concerned, I would spend all the money on watershed restoration. The tributaries are dry. The San Francisco is a dry river. The only way to save the river is to put in storage the floodwaters, so you can have an instream flow."
Siwik said the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement allows only up to 350 cubic feet a second to be diverted during a flood. "The last flood was 6,000 cfs. We don't believe it is practical to divert the excess water. Floods perform important services, and maintenance of the ecology is important to the integrity of the Gila."
"What we ask you to do is support one another," Siwik requested. "We have a lot in common on non-diversion alternatives, such as lining ditches, the regional water system and watershed restoration. We can support one another on non-diversion alternatives."
McKeen said Catron County's projects did not make the cut, although some parts were resurrected into one project. "It's in the hands of the ISC."
Siwik pointed out that the AWSA requires the ISC to consult with southwest New Mexico before making a decision.
Ramos said the alliance planned to support each county's projects, but a lot of information had been given that might change the proposed resolution.
Darr Shannon, alliance secretary, said Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz had requested the alliance support "keeping the water in southwest New Mexico. I don't think any of us is supporting a large diversion."
Ramos said everything gets blown out of proportion by hearsay.
Siwik came back to the issue, brought up in public input, that access to minutes might help.
McKeen adressed Siwik's allegation that the area has sufficient water: "I don't think so. We're all short of water. The management of the forest has created the problem."
Siwik said the bottom line is that climate change is affecting everything with not as much snowpack.
"We know what it's like in southwest New Mexico," Ramos said.
"We need to live within our means and live sustainably," Siwik said.
The next article will conclude the meeting.