Gila River Diversion Would Be a Costly Failure

May 16, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

As the December deadline approaches for New Mexico to decide whether or not it will proceed with a controversial diversion of the Gila River, a former director of the state’s Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) testified on April 30 to the ISC that the proposed diversion would result in “a failed project that would produce little or no water” and be a “major waste of money, time, and effort.”

Norm Gaume, an engineer who headed the ISC from 1997 to 2002, took his old agency to task for shoddy and misleading analysis of the diversion’s benefits and costs, and for denying his requests for a copy of the commission’s “secret model.”

Gaume urged the ISC to “immediately commit to an open, transparent public process so that you can make an informed, well-considered, rational and legitimate decision.”
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The Middle Fork of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. Photo: Joe Burgess/Creative Commons

The Gila is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States, and the only one in New Mexico.  It boasts one of the healthiest cottonwood-willow riparian forests in the desert southwest, one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in North America, and the most intact native fish community in the Colorado River Basin.
Last year, scientists found the rare northern Mexican gartersnake (Thamnophis eques) – a candidate for the federal endangered species list and previously thought to be extirpated from New Mexico – living in the Gila’s floodplain.
In 2014, the conservation group American Rivers named the Gila one of the nation’s top ten most endangered rivers, citing the threat of the proposed diversion.
For decades, New Mexico officials have proposed damming the Gila to expand water supplies in the southwestern region of the state.  The latest proposal to divert some of the river’s flow to an off-stream reservoir emerged as part of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), a deal to settle water rights claims in Arizona and New Mexico.
On paper, New Mexico got rights to 14,000 acre-feet (4.56 billion gallons) of the Gila’s annual flow.
But as Gaume points out in his written report, those rights exist only on paper.  Because those rights are the most junior, far less water – “much less than half” – would in reality be available to New Mexico.
In addition to the project’s estimated capital costs of  $280 million to $469 million – only about $100 million of which would be covered by federal subsidies – Gaume estimates that the energy costs to pump the diverted water and the “exchange fees” New Mexico must pay to compensate the more senior water rights holders in Arizona would render the project’s operation “inordinately costly.”
“Existing water rates for project beneficiaries would more than double and $100s of millions of state funding would be required for construction,” Gaume testified.
The downsides of the diversion don’t stop with ecological harm to the river, reduced recreational values, loss of biodiversity, higher water rates for local communities, and a stiff construction bill for New Mexico taxpayers.
They also include foregoing for perhaps a decade or more the $66 million that the AWSA makes available for projects to help meet local water needs in southwestern New Mexico, including urban and agricultural conservation measures, sustainable groundwater use and other solutions that make better use of local water supplies.
Such projects would generate new supplies at far less cost than the diversion scheme and could get under way almost immediately.
When facts and sound analysis are applied, it’s hard not to see the Gila diversion as a losing proposition all around.
Moreover, a poll conducted in 2013 found New Mexicans to be strongly opposed to the Gila diversion, with 61 percent of respondents siding with the no-diversion position, once they were informed about the project’s details, and 36% siding with the pro-diversion position.
With ecological, economic and democratic principles all pointing to the same conclusion – that the diversion project should be abandoned, and local conservation, recycling and groundwater projects begun – why are the state’s public servants still promoting it?
Many a political water legacy was built on big dams and diversions in the 20th century, to be sure.  But the notable legacies of  the 21st century will be strategies that creatively demonstrate how cost-effective, ecologically sound water management can maximize the value of our limited water supplies.

Sandra Postel

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project, and lectures, writes and consults on global water issues. In 2010 she was appointed Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, where she serves as lead water expert for the Society’s freshwater efforts. Sandra is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being pioneered by National Geographic and its partners. During 2000-2008, Sandra was visiting senior lecturer in Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College, and late in that term directed the college’s Center for the Environment. From 1988 until 1994, she was vice president for research at the Worldwatch Institute. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and in 2002 was named one of the Scientific American 50, an award recognizing contributions to science and technology. In 1992 Postel authored Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, which now appears in eight languages and was the basis for a PBS documentary that aired in 1997. She is also author of Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (1999) and co-author of Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (2003). Her article “Troubled Waters” was selected for inclusion in the 2001 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing. Sandra has authored well over 100 articles for popular, scholarly, and news publications, including ScienceScientific AmericanForeign PolicyThe New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Tags: rivers, Watershed Protection