In the Southwest, water is the lifeblood of our economy and culture. Access to adequate clean and affordable water means that our cities can bustle with activity, our farmers can grow local food, and our rivers can sustain the cottonwoods and wildlife we all know and love.
In exchange for developing water downstream in the Colorado River watershed, the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 (AWSA) gave the State of New Mexico money to fund water supply improvement projects. This money could either partially fund a major dam, reservoir, and delivery project on the upper Gila River or instead pay for other types of water projects in the State’s Southwest Planning Region—Catron, Luna, Hidalgo, and Grant Counties.
The U.S. Department of the Interior and the State of New Mexico recently signed an agreement that set out a framework for a multi-year environmental and cost evaluation of a Gila River diversion project and alternative proposals for water development on the upper region of the Gila. The question on the table is whether a diversion project should even be in the cards.
Proponents of a diversion project have argued that New Mexico needs to take any chance that comes its way to develop water, regardless of context, costs, or value.
Based on analysis to date, however, it is hard to imagine a dam or diversion of the Gila River that is not irresponsibly expensive as well as destructive to other economic and resource values. Initial cost estimates put the price tag for a full diversion project on the Gila between $800 million and $1.18 billion. And with only around 8-13 percent of the total cost coming from the federal AWSA funding, some of which has already been spent just to study the proposal, New Mexico taxpayers would be on the hook for covering the rest.
On top of that, water users in Southwest New Mexico—residents of Silver City, Deming, and other communities, and farmers and ranchers in the four counties—would likely see their water bills go up drastically in order to pay for expensive water coming from the diversion project.
We must also carefully consider what could be lost. The upper Gila is the last free flowing river in the American Southwest. It is home to many species of fish and birds that rely on its natural hydrology. It is dominated by an amazing gallery forest of native cottonwoods and white trunked Arizona Sycamores towering over riparian willows because of the river’s natural flooding regime.
Recreation tourism, which brings significant dollars to local businesses in the region, depends on a healthy Gila River. And local communities, farmers, and ranchers all depend on the greater Gila-San Francisco watershed to recharge their aquifers and groundwater supplies.
I believe that there are smarter and more responsible ways to spend taxpayer dollars than to dewater the Gila River. We should use the AWSA money to fund proven water efficiency and infrastructure measures. In recent years, State Senator Howie Morales, who represents Grant and Catron Counties, has introduced legislation that would direct AWSA funds toward thirteen high priority water projects in all four counties. Each of these projects has broad support and would yield real results for a fraction of the cost of a billion dollar dam.
Watershed restoration, regional water supply projects, and improvements to irrigation infrastructure will do far more to sustain future water needs in southwest New Mexico than a Gila diversion project ever could.
At a time when reduced revenue streams from low oil and gas prices are forcing our state into difficult budget decisions, we need to be deliberate in our assessment of whether dewatering the Gila River is a wise use of taxpayer dollars. And when better, data-driven alternatives exist, it’s wasteful to throw millions of dollars studying a diversion project when we could be spending those millions on real projects that will yield real water at an affordable price.
New Mexico’s taxpayers deserve responsible, cost effective, science-based solutions if we are to manage both our limited water supplies and constrained budgets. Damming or diverting the Gila River simply does not meet that standard.
Featured image: Gila River photo by Alan Stark