Taking New Mexico’s Gila water from the San Juan?

Old John Fleck would have happily explained to you why this from Bruce Babbitt is a terrible idea:

Damming the Gila River is a vampire proposal that would suck the life out of Southern New Mexico’s most treasured wild and scenic river.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to kill the project. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. senators have tried to withdraw federal funds. Public opinion is against it. But like the vampires of legend, it refuses to die.

A better alternative is to take New Mexico’s water entitlement from existing dams on the San Juan River in Northern New Mexico.

New John Fleck is intrigued, based on a recognition that we need to find ways to expand the policy option space for dealing with Colorado River governance in the coming five years.

On the “terrible idea” side of the ledger is the breaking of one of the Law of the River’s great taboos – moving water across the Upper Basin-Lower Basin Lee Ferry boundary. Taking Gila River water (Lower Basin water!) from the San Juan (an Upper Basin tributary!)? And then, once we get the water across the continental divide into the Rio Grande Basin, we have yet another boundary to cross in the form of the Rio Grande Compact’s bizarre rules surrounding water moving past Elephant Butte Reservoir to the places Babbitt is rightly suggesting have a need for the water.

The institutional challenges here, in terms of needed interstate political agreement and rules changes, are staggering. I have a whole family of “that’s too hard” arguments at the ready for things like this. This is Old John Fleck.

But as we head into the process of renegotiating the river’s operating rules over the next five years, New John Fleck is increasingly interested in expanding the range of policy options we consider, not shrinking them.

I’m not sure I’d have the guts to pitch this particular idea, but I’m intrigued. Better Bruce Babbitt than me!


  1. Sue –

    First and foremost, it’s not clear that the San Juan, and more importantly the tributaries that feed the San Juan-Chama Project, have water to give. There are significant environmental concerns that would need to be addressed.

    Second is kinda what I alluded to above – the legal challenges are enormous. You’d have to come up with an entirely new accounting scheme to take a Lower Basin allotment out of an Upper Basin stream, and somehow keep track of the difference as Colorado River water leaves Glen Canyon Dam and passes down past Lee Ferry. In fact that’s the part that intrigues me the most – I think there’s important opportunities if we can figure out how to loosen the Lee Ferry delivery constraints in a way that allows us to move water around more flexibly. But it’s super hard to do.

  2. What about the razor back and hump back chub? De-watering an already severely impacted river (Bloomfield Refinery and other pollutions sources are largely mitigated via dilution in the San Juan Basin) may push them over the edge. Cross-basin diversions also have significant environmental and social effects. The pushback from downstream users (already in an over-allocated system), or from upstream users determined to make a point (western slope-vs-front range) could kill a deal before it ever got off the ground?

  3. Bill – I’m very aware, as you have frequently reminded me of it over the years. All four of those men are dead, it was never done, this is now, and the challenges standing in its way are formidable.

  4. with so many rivers already being so overallocated and abused that they hardly function as rivers any longer i’d see such a thing as likely a raw deal for even more of what little remains.

    instead of figuring out how to transfer water from one place to another (and losing so much of it along the way – at present between half a million and over a million acre feet of water is lost due to evaporation from LP and LM) it makes more sense to me to work on gradually scaling back the abuses so that groundwater can recover, so that the natural world can function again.

    done in time, even over 100yrs, i’m ok in thinking for the longest term. we still have no idea if we can get alive off this planet and into space let alone beyond this solar system. we need to make the care of this planet and the life on it our priority. a much higher one that is currently happening.

  5. Bruce Babbitt’s article states that the “San Juan-Chama Diversion delivers an average of 200,000 acre-feet”. The statutory limit is an average of 135,000 acre-feet per year, taken as a 10-year running average. However, as you allude to in one of your comment responses, John, the actual limit is physical. Bypass flow requirements at the San Juan-Chama’s three diversion sites have left less than 100,000 acre-feet per year, on average, for diversion through the project.

    As you know, taking water from the Upper Basin and consuming it in the Lower Basin is scheduled to occur in Gallup with the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and in St. George with the Lake Powell Pipeline. In these cases, the consumptive use would count against New Mexico’s and Utah’s Upper Basin apportionments. Taking water from the Upper Basin, consuming it in the Lower Basin, and counting it against that state’s Lower Basin apportionment (as in Bruce Babbitt’s article), has been contemplated before. The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project will send water to Window Rock, Arizona contingent on the Navajo Nation and Arizona reaching an agreement. The authorizing legislation states that Arizona could count that water as part of its Upper Basin apportionment or as part of its Lower Basin apportionment, with the water then credited as reaching Lee Ferry.

  6. Maybe we would get a newer-yet Fleck who would agree with me that we should junk the whole Upper/Lower Basin idea of the Compact entirely.

    If I’m not being ghosted here.

  7. The real “tragedy of the commons” is that some wind up with lion’s share. Human nature has a hard time splitting natural resources up in an equitable way. In the eyes of the “compact”, The Colorado River exists to make money; not because it anchors the environment of the Southwest.

    Sometimes the best way to solve a tough problem is to go back to the very beginning. Put the environmental issues ahead. Those issues need to satisfied or we don’t survive. Some of the current economic issues just have to be let go. Agriculture has to be done differently. Evaporation needs to be reduced. Put a price on the water. Water is part of the commons. Economic interests need to pay their fair share. No subsidies.

    Current agreements and law are not valid because there is not enough water for them to work. This can’t be piecemealed. Get a big table and get all the parties on it.

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