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Gila River Protection

Today we learned that the US Department of Interior (DOI), signed an agreement to proceed with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) evaluation of a diversion of the Gila River. However, as DOI clearly states in their press release this "is not a green light for the proposed project."

The DOI decision follows considerable vocal public opposition, including delivery of a petition with nearly 54,000 signatures to Secretary Jewell's office by Audubon. The petition called on her to reject the costly diversion project and permanently protect the Gila. Although we are disappointed that DOI didn't stop this foolhardy project at this time, they did recognize that there are serious obstacles that this project must overcome to pass financial & environmental requirements mandated by Federal law.

We are grateful to all of you for putting this pressure on DOI. It likely helped ensure that the NEPA phase will involve honest, objective scientific evaluations that should confirm what we have all been saying about the infeasibility of a diversion on many counts. DOI issued a series of questions and answers to accompany the agreement confirming public involvement in the NEPA process and consideration of a full-range of alternatives. The NEPA evaluations should provide the basis to protect the Gila River forever.

If DOI had rejected the diversion outright without having the formal NEPA analysis, it also would have likely led to a series of lawsuits by the Interstate Stream Commission and the NM CAP entity. Those could have wasted even more of the Arizona Water Settlement Act money than the NEPA analysis will require. If you have any doubt that they would not pursue that litigious strategy don't forgot that they didn't hesitate to try to countersue Norm Gaume when he filed his lawsuit about ISC open meeting act violations.

We've been fighting this battle for a long time. Forty-seven years ago the Hooker dam proposal triggered the founding of Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society. Since the NEPA process is scheduled to be completed by 2019, we are 92% of the way to protecting the Gila forever.

We hope you will continue to support SWNM Audubon's efforts to speak out against the diversion.

The Gila River, the last major free-flowing river in New Mexico, is under threat from a large-scale diversion and storage proposal that would pipe its water over the Continental Divide. The project is fraught with financial and technical problems that have no viable solution. At risk is a large contiguous stretch of multi-aged cottonwood-willow riparian forest, one of the most diverse, natural ecosystems remaining in the Western U.S. The Gila River is home to many important threatened and endangered species including the Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Significant outdoor recreation and tourism are supported by the Gila. Diversion, storage and export of Gila River water does not make sense.

New Water Is Not Needed. For all the dollars spent on questionable engineering and economic studies, no money was appropriated to get an accurate, dynamic measure of Mimbres Basin stored water. Instead, limited test well data gathered 20 years ago has been used to assert a 30,000 acre-foot deficit in the basin. Reductions in water use from conversion to sub-surface drip irrigation and a significant drop in irrigated agriculture in Luna County weren't factored in to estimates of water needs. See Mimbres Basin Water1

Farmers Cannot Afford the Water. New Gila River water won't be free to the region's farmers, contrary to an assumption stated in the one agricultural economics study commissioned by the ISC. To justify diversion, the study failed to properly account for the amount of water a diversion project might yield and claimed, without substantiation, that flood irrigation can achieve the same efficiency as sub-surface drip. In fact, with increased efficiency in irrigation practices, more water could be gained through conservation than a diversion project would provide and at a fraction of the cost. See Agricultural Economics1

New Mexico Cannot Afford It. Engineering studies estimate the cost of diversion and storage at more than $700 million -- enough to fund all of Southwestern New Mexico's needed water projects combined. Since originally proposed, cost estimates have increased fourfold. This project has a huge price tag, but miniscule deliverable water for unspecified end users. It could cost as much as San Diego's desalination plant that will supply drinking water to 300,000 people. See Engineering Studies

Project Costs Far Outweigh Benefits. The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) performed comprehensive economic studies on all proposals submitted for AWSA funding and concluded that costs for diversion proposals far outweigh benefits. Water conservation, reuse and infrastructure improvements provide much greater benefits compared to costs. See Economics of AWSA Proposals1

Environmental Costs Are Incalculable. There is not a single diversion and storage system in the West that is not plagued by ecological damage of one kind or another. An independent peer-reviewed study of the Gila River clearly showed the harm that can be expected to the habitat of seven threatened and endangered species (or candidates for listing). See Environmental Impacts1

Long-term Regional Water Security Is Available Now. Water conservation, infrastructure improvements, and municipal reuse projects can be fully funded with the federal dollars available through the AWSA. These "non-diversion" projects were generated at the grass-roots level in the four-county region and would yield as much or more additional water than the amount projected by diversion and storage. Unfortunately, the ISC chose to fund these projects at a low percentage of their request and attached onerous requirements for matching funding.

Gila River Diversion
Important Bird Areas (IBAs) Need Your Help . . . NOW!
The future of the fauna that rely on crucial Gila River riparian habitats is currently in the hands of nine men appointed by Governor Martinez to the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). They will notify the US Department of the Interior by the end of this year if New Mexico will pursue a diversion of the Gila River using federal funds available under the Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA). This act, passed by Congress in 2004, guarantees at least $66 million for any project to meet water needs in the four counties of Southwest New Mexico. This can include projects that conserve water, improve agricultural or municipal infrastructure, reuse water or restore the Gila River watershed.
Gila River Important Bird Area (IBA), on Gila National Forest Service property, is a frequent destination for birding trips. Two other IBAs along the Gila River in New Mexico are:

  1. the Lower Gila Box IBA on BLM land north of Lordsburg and east of Virden
  2. the Upper Gila Box downstream to the Iron Bridge, designated the Cliff-Gila IBA

One of the largest concentrations of breeding birds in the United States is dependent on these IBAs. Many rare species rely on this unique habitat including the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, western population of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gila Woodpecker, Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Lucy's Warbler, and Summer Tanager. Several endangered aquatic species are also found here.

The Southwest Willow Flycatcher is on the endangered species list and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo has just been put on that list as a threatened species. The listing of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo specifically cited proposed water diversions as well as federal grazing policies as threats to the species.

More Money, More Pressure on the IBAs
An additional $38 million is available if a diversion structure is built to take water from the river and store it off-stream in side canyon reservoirs. The amount of water that could be legally diverted in any given year is subject to a number of factors. Any diverted water would cost New Mexico since it is actually owned by the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. They would have to be able to replace any diverted water with water from the Colorado River. We would pay for water that is diverted including any that evaporates or leaks into the ground in the reservoirs. Losses could be 30% or more.

The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) performed an appraisal level engineering and economic analysis and concluded that the cost of diversion and storage exceeded any benefits by almost $700 million. More extensive studies by the BOR would be required if the state selects a diversion, including looking more closely at threats to endangered species.

Top university scientists from across New Mexico recently published a study coordinated by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the ISC - the study is available at nmconverservation.org. They concluded that the amount of water available to divert would be much less than the ISC predicted. Furthermore, since diversion would only occur during snowmelt run-off and summer monsoons when the flow was 400-4000 cfs this would have the most harmful impact on the ecosystem. These flows along with big floods are essential for maintaining the riparian habitat that supports the high diversity of nesting and migratory birds along the Gila River.

Fatally Flawed Proposals
Norm Gaume, Former ISC director and professional engineer repeatedly told the ISC that the diversion proposals are fatally flawed. An independent engineering firm hired by the ISC, RJH Consultants, also warned the ISC of "potential fatal project flaws." Mr. Gaume with two other engineers has used historical flows on the Gila River for the past 77 years to model future flows. They concluded that, in most years, there will not be enough water available to legally divert. That was without even taking into account the effects of climate change on river flows due to reduced snowpack.

Mr. Gaume filed a lawsuit against the ISC for violations of the Open Meetings Act. This lawsuit alleges that the ISC conducted public business behind closed doors. The latest cost estimates by Mr. Gaume are that the cost of the proposed diversion would exceed $1 Billion. Who will pay the bill for this is an open question.

Southwestern New Mexico Audubon was founded 48 years ago to fight the Hooker dam that was proposed on the Gila River. We are still fighting to protect the Gila River's unique ecology and our IBAs. We urge our members to help also. Please contact the ISC, the Governor and your local elected officials. Tell them you don't want a diversion of the Gila River but instead want to see the available money used for alternative projects that will provide more benefits to local residents.

There is not much time left to protect our IBAs and the Gila River.

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