Gila River diversion decision: “Reply hazy. Try again.”

The Magic Eight Ball predicts Interior's Gila decision: "Signs Point to Yes". Image CC via CRASH:candy

The Magic Eight Ball predicts Interior’s Gila decision: “Signs Point to Yes”. Image CC via CRASH:candy

Brett Walton’s Circle of Blue update on the Interior Department’s upcoming Gila River diversion decision suggests we should expect a “yes” from Secretary Jewell tomorrow on a decision to proceed with a lot of inconclusive studies of the super-expensive project that will almost certainly never be built but that will be an intense environmental and water management distraction in New Mexico for years to come.

The decision simply represents a bureaucratic milestone – the approval of a “New Mexico unit” to the Central Arizona Project that could eventually be the institutional vehicle to divert water from the Gila River in southwest New Mexico. It’s a bureaucratic ratchet: “no” tomorrow would kill the diversion, but “yes” doesn’t ensure that it is built. And Walton’s Magic Eight Ball suggests that “signs point to yes”:

Statements from the Interior Department indicate that Jewell will approve the New Mexico unit and proceed with an environmental review that is required under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.

This could take decades a really long time:

According to the project’s authorizing statue, a final decision would be made between 2019 and 2030.

The closest thing we have to serious benefit/cost analyses of this project, done by the federal government ( the recently released Value Planning – Final Report: New Mexico Unit, see also last year’s Appraisal Level Report on the AWSA Tier-2 Proposals and Other Diversion & Storage Configurations) suggests building a diversion and storage for water taken from the Gila would be staggeringly expensive and staggeringly not cost effective, with costs from $700 million to $1.05 billion and substantially less in benefits. Since New Mexico will have to pay most of the cost (Brett’s story gives a good rundown of the limited federal money available) and my impoverished state struggles to find money for far less expensive water projects with far clearer benefits (see this NM Legislative Finance committee report – pdf – for an overview of that problem), you can see where this is headed. However the rest of the policy and politics debates play out, New Mexico is never going to have the money to build this. For now this is a discussion in isolation – Gila project, yes or no? – but as we face decisions as a state, it will inevitably be stacked up against other water infrastructure spending, and it will not stack up well.

My prediction: We’ll have a wonderful, energetic, impassioned fight for years. Come 2030, we’ll still have a Gila Diversion Project, live on the books, with little chance in reality of being built. Lawyers and consultants will prosper. But a great deal of human water management capital that could have been more productively spent dealing with our water needs and environmental problems will have been squandered.

The Magic Eight Ball toy offered up 20 different possible answers to the weighty questions my friends and I would pose as kids in the 1960s. My favorite: “Reply hazy. Try again.”

We always did.


  1. just think what NM could do with 700M – 1B $ for water projects that would actually be cost effective…

    long live the rest of the Gila River in some sort of natural state.

  2. FINAL DRAFT, Long Version of Proposed Gila Project Op-Ed for ABQ Journal, W. Hines 6-25-15

    I am Walter Hines, P.E. (ret.) with a long history of planning and managing water supply projects in New Mexico, both as a consultant and with government. I have considerable experience on the Gila River and many of the issues involved with the Gila River diversion project. I have read the many editorials, articles, technical and environmental reports, and public comments; and noted the intense bickering surrounding the proposed Gila project managed by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). Under the direction of ISC engineer Craig Roepke, consultant Bohannan-Huston (BH) has developed and is now updating a recommended alternative for diversion, storage, and conveyance facilities based on a “Value Engineering” study done by RJH Consultants. The BH report proposes a diversion from the Gila just below Turkey Creek and above Cliff with gravity conveyance to storage in several off stream reservoirs [totaling about 70,000 acre-feet (AF)]. After conveyance to the reservoirs, delivery would be by 70-mile pressure pipeline terminating in Deming.

    There have been loud environmental objections to the project because of its potential impact on the “free flowing” Gila. These and other significant environmental and permitting issues have not been addressed at all in existing ISC reports. “Not in the scope of work” or “too early” has been ISC’s retort to criticism. Almost amazingly, the Manager of the BLM Regional Office in Cruces noted in comments submitted to ISC in late 2014 that the proposed Gila project “falls almost entirely within BLM lands but that “no explicit mention of this relevant fact” has been acknowledged. His office has never been contacted directly about the Gila project and BLM has not been on any of the numerous planning committees. A few of the proposed facilities, including pipelines and reservoirs, fall within BLM Wilderness Study Areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and in areas with federally-listed endangered species .

    Because local groundwater is so inexpensive and population growth has been slow, there is presently a lack of municipal demand for the Gila water in southwest New Mexico. Municipal, rate-paying customers are absolutely essential to economically justify the project, which in the most recent ISC documents, is estimated at about $600 million in construction costs alone. The total costs with escalation, EIS, right-of-way, permitting, Central Arizona Project exchange payments, and other factors could approach $1 billion. The plan recommended in the most recent ISC report assumes no water treatment costs. This is highly expensive water, even with the $128 million in federal funds the State will receive under the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA).

    In September 2014, ex- ISC Engineer and consultant Norm Gaume wrote to the ISC with a number of scathing comments regarding the poor quality of the planning and preliminary engineering done so far on ISC’s present scheme. As a consultant with much experience on the Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, and Ute Reservoir surface water diversion projects, I am in virtually complete agreement with Gaume’s critique. The ISC scheme is simply not viable, is economically infeasible, and could impact the Gila River environment at an unacceptable level.

    Gaume concludes his letter by saying that “the ISC’s only rational decision is to abandon the quest for an AWSA Gila River diversion project” and that the remaining AWSA-granted monies (about $90 million?) be spent on local water supply projects. While a number of such local projects are sorely needed, I do not agree that the ISC’s Gila River project should be abandoned. In a state with a chronic shortage of renewable surface water, abandoning this golden opportunity is almost unthinkable – particularly when there appears to be an alternative that has never been seriously pursued by ISC for reasons unknown.
    In brief, the alternative Gila project would involve the following:

    1. Begin high-level negotiations (with Governor Martinez’s participation) with Freeport-McMoRan (FMI) about an exchange/purchase of some of their surface water rights (with allowable diversions virtually anytime) for a portion of the highly restrictive AWSA diversion rights. FMI has a declining need for Gila water at their Tyrone operation, but apparently has supply problems at their mine at Morenci on the Gila River in Arizona. FMI approached ISC about water exchanges several years ago, but discussions went ‘nowhere’ and ISC project lead Craig Roepke abandoned further talks. In short, bad blood has developed and New Mexico is the worse off for it. This is made all the more unfortunate because FMI has another sorely needed asset – a water delivery system that could be used in a Gila project.
    2. Coincident with the discussion on a water exchange/purchase, negotiate with FMI for use of their existing diversion/storage facilities on the Gila and Bill Evans Reservoir below Riverside. FMI also has a 24-inch pipeline that runs from Bill Evans to their mining operation at Tyrone (which is proximate to the Franks-Woodward wellfied complex six miles southwest of Silver City). While these facilities are some 50 years old, we believe them to be in working order, and that they could be updated and rehabbed at reasonable cost. Enlarged off stream storage would be needed, but nowhere near the 70,000 AF+/- currently contemplated by ISC. The environmental impacts and permitting requirements would be minimized. An engineering evaluation could be done in a relatively short time to determine the condition of the FMI facilities for joint use by ISC and FMI.
    3. Where would water from a joint ISC-FMI operation be used? Some would continue to be used by FMI at their Tyrone mine. The remainder could be recharged at Silver City’s Franks and Woodward well fields from an extension of the FMI pipeline. The viability of recharging the Gila Group aquifer in this area was studied by the late hydrogeologist, Fred Trauger, in a 1984 report entitled, Evaluation of a Municipal Water Supply for the Silver City Area Using Ground Water Recharge of Water from the Conner Reservoir on the Gila River by J. W. Hernandez. W. G. Hines, and F. D. Trauger. The report was done for ISC under the assumption that a main stem dam (Conner) would be built on the Gila River. While such a dam is now out of the question, the recharge concept is still viable. Curiously, recharge and aquifer storage has never even been among the options studied or even identified as an alternative worthy of study by ISC and its consultants.

    According to Trauger, pp. 94-95:

    Silver City’s Franks and Woodward wellfields are particularly suited for recharge. … . Sediment free water can be delivered from the Gila River… the water is chemically compatible with natural ground waters… . The terrain is suitable for infiltration by spreading and the geologic formation…is favorable for rapid infiltration to the water table.

    Trauger also noted the large cone of depression caused in the area by historic pumping and that treatment of recharged Gila water, other than chlorination, would likely not be needed because of the filtration through hundreds of feet of soil and unconsolidated geologic material. Data in Balleau Groundwater’s study of the Silver City wellfields in 2006, suggests that the wellfields could have more than 150,000 AF of storage space available to accept recharge water. This water will not “run away” as suggested by some. In my opinion, this is where much of the municipal water could be stored (with no evaporative loss) until larger demands develop over the next 2-3 decades at Silver City, Bayard, Central, and Hurley (and possibly at Deming).
    In summary, I believe the Gila diversion project can be made feasible and much less costly, both monetarily and environmentally. The ISC should negotiate with FMI to obtain and exchange year-round diversion rights (perhaps 4,000 AF) for AWSA restricted rights; should assess, update and use FMI diversion/storage/conveyance facilities, and seriously investigate the creation of a recharge “water bank” at the Silver City wellfields. I urge that the ISC seriously consider this plan in lieu of the obviously infeasible project presently under consideration.

    The June 14, 2015 Albuquerque Journal editorial had it right. Before moving forward with huge expenditures of taxpayer’s money for capturing small amounts of water, it is important that a realistic cost-benefit analysis be completed based on the most efficient layout of any Gila project. The long-term water future of municipal water in southwest New Mexico is at stake.

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