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SANTA FE, N.M. — Thirty years ago, biologist David Propst was fresh out of graduate school when he started working on the Gila River. Tucked into the southwestern corner of New Mexico, the Gila’s headwaters run out of the Mogollon Mountains and flow through southern Arizona and into the Colorado River. Small farms along the way divert irrigation water. But there are no large dams.
At 649 miles, the Gila remains one of the last of the West’s free-flowing major rivers. The Yellowstone River, also undammed, is 692 miles long.
“If I were to get up on a hill overlooking the Cliff-Gila Valley,” said Propst, referring to where the Gila bursts from the canyon-constricted wilderness and opens to a wide valley, “and contrast that today with what it looked like in 1983, you would be hard pressed to see any differences.”
While drought and wildfires have wreaked havoc on the landscape — the region has been gripped in drought since the late 1990s, and wildfires have ripped through the mountains — human development has been minimal for the Gila.
“At one level — the human footprint on the landscape — it really hasn’t changed much over 30 years,” said Propst.
But it might not stay that way. Though previous dam project proposals have come and gone, a new one on the table means New Mexico must decide by the end of 2014 whether to reap federal funding and build a diversion on the Gila River. Although the decision has been under consideration for almost a decade, details about the plans are only now emerging. And those details have many people in New Mexico — including scientists, citizens and some lawmakers — worried about the future of the river.
The plan is aimed at settling an old dispute. In the mid-20th century, when Western states were wrangling over water rights, New Mexico was pulled into a lawsuit between California and Arizona. The suit wound through federal and state courts for decades; in the end, New Mexico was promised more water from the Colorado River.
The catch? New Mexico had to find someone in Arizona willing to trade Colorado River water for water from the Gila or one of its tributaries, the San Francisco River. The deal is a classic example of how water rights in the West often have more to do with numbers on a tally sheet than with actual “wet” water.
New Mexico couldn’t find a partner until 2004, when Congress passed a law allowing it to trade with Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community. That law also gave New Mexico a choice: to accept $66 million in federal funding and meet water supply demands in the southwestern corner of the state through conservation — or receive an additional $34 million to build a diversion and pump water from the Gila.
Over the past few years, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) has been evaluating proposals and planning for its decision.
“The thing is: Do we want to develop any of that water?” director Estevan Lopez asked. “We’re trying to look at all aspects of things.”
Diverting water would increase the state’s claim on Gila River water by almost 50 percent, he said, and it could be bought by farmers, local communities or corporations.
ISC staff members have spent the past two years evaluating proposals. These range from conservation projects, such as forest thinning and reusing municipal water, to building a diversion project on the Gila.
In mid-January, the state released a preliminary engineering report. At a public meeting in Cliff, N.M., advocates for protecting the river clashed with the ISC staff member shepherding proposals through the evaluation process. It was the first time members of the public had learned details of the development — in this case, a $348 million project that would siphon water from the river and store it in nearby arroyos, or dry streambeds.
Lopez said his agency has been accused of already deciding to divert water in favor of conservation projects.
“I know that our commission has not made a decision,” he said. “I know that without a doubt.”
But with the clock ticking toward decision time, some say too many questions remain unanswered.
State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, worries how big a bill New Mexico might incur if the state chooses to divert and develop the Gila. There’s a big gap between the federal money New Mexico would receive and the proposed diversion’s $348 million price tag.
During the recent session of the New Mexico Legislature, Wirth introduced a bill that would have directed the state to spend its federal money on conservation projects, rather than a diversion of the Gila.
Wirth has said he believes conservation projects — forest thinning in the backcountry, increasing efficiency on farms, and reusing municipal water — could save two to three times the amount that a diversion on the Gila might capture. Not only that, he said, but those projects would create long-term jobs in southwestern New Mexico.
The senator wasn’t the only one worried about a potential diversion.
While on vacation, a former director of the ISC received an email linking to the diversion’s preliminary engineering report. Trying to read the 200-plus-page report on his phone, Norman Gaume was appalled. When he got home, he read it more closely. Then he traveled down to the Gila and hiked into where the proposed diversion might be built.
The diversion project cannot work, Gaume said, citing too many engineering flaws: Sediment will plug its infrastructure almost immediately, and the sandy arroyos slated for storage would quickly drain the water.
“It’s really just one of the poorest concepts that I can imagine,” he said.
Gaume also doubts the state’s studies on how much water is actually available, especially as the climate warms and the region’s snowpack continues to decrease.
“I think there’s a substantial chance if the climate continues as it has that the project could be built and there wouldn’t be any water diverted, maybe for years,” he said.
Gaume testified against the proposal not only because he’s visited the Gila country since childhood, but also because it offended his engineering ethics and his sense of public service.
“I came out of retirement, as a citizen, because I want to prevent this horrible mistake from being made,” he said.
So many people showed up to hear testimony on the bill that the Senate Conservation Committee had to hold its hearing on the Senate floor.
There’s a substantial chance if the climate continues as it has that the project could be built and there wouldn’t be any water diverted, maybe for years.
Norman Gaume, former director
N.M. Interstate Stream Commission
Dutch Salmon, an angler, hunter and river runner, made the 300-mile trip from Silver City to listen. In 1983, he traveled 200 miles down the Gila with a cat and dog in tow.
“I’ve been stuck defending the Gila ever since,” he said.
Salmon described his favorite stretch of the Gila, a 7-mile length in which the river is constrained within a box canyon that runs through pines and high desert before flowing into the Cliff-Gila Valley.
“There are big bass, big catfish, blackhawks, vermilion flycatchers, Bullock’s orioles. It’s just a lovely place to go. It’s not a designated wilderness, it’s a de facto wild. But it’s where they want to put diversion,” he said. “It’s a jewel about to be protected or smashed, depending on who wins.”
To the disappointment of Salmon and the 100 or so people gathered around the New Mexico Senate gallery, Wirth’s bill didn’t make it to the Senate for a vote. It didn’t even pass out of the Conservation Committee.
Over the next few months, the ISC staff will continue evaluating proposals. In November, staff will make recommendations to the commission, a group of nine men appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
In December, the commission will decide if New Mexico will go ahead with conservation or diversion.
Even though his bill failed to pass, Wirth hopes the commission will consider the benefits of conservation.
“What an extraordinary opportunity to send a signal, not just in the Gila, not just in New Mexico, but really to the West about the importance of conservation,” he said. “Here, really, is a road map for the rest of our state — that’s in extreme crisis — for what you can do with conservation.”
This story and headline have been updated to correct the reference to the Gila being the last undammed river in the West.