FromThe High Country News (Jessica Kutz, September 17, 2021):
When I moved to Tucson from western Colorado in the fall of 2019, I knew the weather would be warmer than I was used to. But the summer that followed turned out to be the hottest on record. I waited for the promised monsoon to cool things down, but that relief never came. Instead, I sweltered in my swamp-cooled duplex.
Then, in mid-June this year, the monsoon season finally began. When the first rains hit, my partner, a Tucson resident for more than a decade, ran out into the street in our neighborhood to frolic in the torrent. As he pranced under dim streetlights, I worried that this storm would be like last year’s — the only rain of the season. What if it was the last monsoon ever? Given our increasingly unpredictable world, I decided to embrace the moment. I ran out, letting the rain soak through my clothes as a rush of water stormed down the street, my feet and ankles submerged in a dirty deluge.
By July, the rain was making regular appearances. It was around that time that I first read about the Southwest Monsoon Fantasy Forecasts, an online game where people cast their monsoon predictions. That month turned out to be the wettest on record. It rained 8 inches in Tucson — the largest amount since the city started keeping track in the 1890s — a tremendous amount compared to the previous year’s 1.62 inches, and even to the yearly average, which is around 6 inches. Intrigued by how erratic the seasons seemed to be — and delighted by the prospect of winning a $400 backyard weather station that could track everything from wind speed to solar radiation — I decided to give the fantasy forecast a try.
I created a username, joining the ranks of other amateur forecasters with imaginative monikers like “mesquite nerd” and “weather geek.” It was easy to log my guess for the month of August. Each city has its own page, with a bar graph depicting the median and mean rain totals, giving a sense of the usual rainfall. I moved a thick yellow line across the graph, contemplating my best estimates for El Paso, Flagstaff, Tucson, Phoenix and Albuquerque. Should I move the line closer to the right, showing how much I hoped for more rain? Or settle for a more conservative estimate? I imagined other weather enthusiasts across the West doing the same, attempting to make sense of a seasonal weather pattern that doesn’t seem to make sense much. I fiddled with my calculations for August and eventually settled on 1.8 inches, the median guess for Tucson. I didn’t believe our monsoon luck would continue past July.
But August surpassed expectations again, with nearly 4 inches of rain. I was off, badly off, with my conservative estimate. It was worth it, though: The Tucson Mountains suddenly looked like a scene from Jurassic Park, with rocky slopes giving way to verdant valleys. What was brown and dry was now lush and green, and weeds flourished in the sidewalk cracks in the middle of August. Mesquite trees begin taking over my patio, and the mosquitos, which multiplied with the rain, eagerly dined out on my arms. But the rain brought problems of its own: While this year’s outsized monsoon storms were welcome, they were often accompanied by dangerous flooding that overwhelmed the desert arroyos and washes. Flash-flood notices lit up our phones all summer long in what an announcer at a local indie-movie theater called “a symphony of storm alerts.”
OVER THE PAST DECADE, the University of Arizona’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest program (CLIMAS) has hosted an entertaining podcast about local weather systems. And in recent years, there’s inevitably an episode where the usual hosts, Michael Crimmins and Zack Guido, researchers and professors at the University of Arizona, have a back-and-forth about their monsoon predictions. It was that dialogue that inspired them, along with fellow researcher and producer Ben McMahan, to create the monsoon game. “(We wanted) to find new ways of talking about the monsoon that engaged the public, because we know how it’s the single season that captivates the attention of people,” said Guido.
For Crimmins, it was also an excuse to indulge his obsession with the monsoon rains. He says his moods are dictated by the season; during last summer’s “nonsoon,” he cycled through all five stages of grief. “It’s kind of like an emotional thing in that I go up and down with the dewpoint temperature,” he told me. He spends his days alternating between checking his fancy home weather station — which is similar to the prize that was being offered — and, when he’s out, scanning his phone to see if any storms are developing. “I even got it to show up on my smartwatch,” he said incredulously. “That’s not normal.”
The game’s main purpose is to educate residents about our regional weather systems. “It’s not so much that we think people have some innate ability to know what the weather is going to be,” Guido explained. “But we do think the act of thinking about weather and climate is a very useful exercise for a whole bunch of reasons.” Monsoon game players are more likely to take their curiosity a step further, researching the region’s historical precipitation patterns and trying to deepen their understanding by comparing their own weather hunches to the scientific data.
The monsoons are something that affect us all, whether we realize it or not, because they influence the regional temperatures — and, for those of us with swamp coolers, they either intensify or reduce our personal experience of humidity and heat. “It’s kind of like soccer or fútbol for Latin Americans,” Guido said. “It’s the thing that everybody can talk about, and that everyone loves to talk about and you can kind of find common ground.”
The Southwest’s monsoon is driven by a complex host of factors. But at its most basic level, it forms when the land warms up at a different rate than the Pacific Ocean does, causing the wind direction to shift and allowing moisture to travel north from Mexico. Most of the monsoon rains are actually concentrated in Mexico. In the Southwest, we’re on the periphery of the weather pattern. But that still covers a lot of territory: The monsoon season extends all the way up to Colorado and Utah and influences weather across the entire West. Various factors, including the air pressure system known as the Four Corners High and the amount of moisture in the air, aligned this year to give us a “good” monsoon. “Wherever that high-pressure system is, is really, really important,” Crimmins said. “If it is above Arizona and New Mexico, then that moisture is pushed back into Mexico.” This year, it was positioned just right.
That’s why, Guido said, it’s harder than people think to connect extreme seasons — like this year’s remarkably good monsoon, say, or last season’s terribly dry one — to climate change. The dramatic differences between the two seasons represent an anomaly; it’s more likely that future changes from year to year will tend to be much subtler. “There’s so much variability that we would need long records, and highly dense records, to be able to find the trends in them. And we just don’t have that,” he said. “We know that we’ve altered the amount of energy within our system, and we know that has an effect on the climate system because the climate system is about moving energy around,” he said. There’s a reason the 2021 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change avoids making definitive statements about the future of the Southwest’s monsoon. “It’s a $10 million question,” Guido said.
Throughout the rainy months of summer, for McMahan, the game provoked a kind of internal conflict between his desire to win the competition and the region’s desperate need for precipitation. “I want it to rain a certain amount, but then I kind of want it to stop raining, but I actually don’t want it to stop raining,” he said when we spoke in August. “That cursing kind of talk is not acceptable about the monsoon.”
As of press time, my own guesses have me ranked at 144th place. By mid-September, Tucson’s monsoon season was already the third wettest on record. More than 12 inches of rain has fallen since June. Who could have predicted that?
Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email her at email@example.com.
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Click through for Ted Wood’s photo gallery:
The Gila was once a vibrant desert river, providing a lifeline for the riparian habitat and wildlife that depended on it in the U.S. Southwest. But population growth, agricultural withdrawals, and, increasingly, climate change have badly diminished the river and threaten its future.
The confluence of the tiny San Pedro River and the much larger Gila was once one of the richest locales in one of the most productive river ecosystems in the American Southwest, an incomparable oasis of biodiversity.
The rivers frequently flooded their banks, a life-giving pulse that created sprawling riverside cienegas, or fertile wetlands; braided and beaver-dammed channels; meandering oxbows; and bosques — riparian habitats with towering cottonwoods, mesquite and willows. This lush, wet Arizona landscape, combined with the searing heat of the Sonoran Desert, gave rise to a vast array of insects, fish and wildlife, including apex predators such as Mexican wolves, grizzly bears, jaguars and cougars, which prowled the river corridors.
The confluence now is a very different place, its richness long diminished. A massive mountain of orange- and dun-colored smelter tailings, left from the days of copper and lead processing and riddled with arsenic, towers where the two rivers meet. Water rarely flows there, with an occasional summer downpour delivering an ephemeral trickle.
On a recent visit, only a few brown, stagnant pools remained. In one, hundreds of small fish gasped for oxygen. An egret that had been feeding on the fish flew off. The plop of a bull frog, an invasive species, echoed in the hot, still air.
The Gila River, which was listed by the advocacy group American Rivers in 2019 as the nation’s most endangered river, drains an enormous watershed of 60,000 square miles. Stretches have long been depleted, largely because of crop irrigation and the water demands of large cities. Now, a warmer and drier climate is bearing down on ecosystems that have been deprived of water, fragmented, and otherwise altered, their natural resilience undone by human activities.
Other desert rivers around the globe — from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates to the Amu Darya in Central Asia — face similar threats. Efforts are underway to restore some integrity to these natural systems, but it is an uphill battle, in part because desert rivers are more fragile than rivers in cooler, wetter places.
Last year was the second-hottest and second-driest on record in Arizona, where heat records are frequently broken. The last two years have seen fewer desert downpours, known locally as monsoons, an important source of summer river flow.
“We’re dealing with a rapidly changing climate that is becoming, overall, more dry and varied and warmer,” said Scott Wilbor, an ecologist in Tucson who studies desert river ecosystems, including the San Pedro. “We are in uncharted territory.”
Born of snowmelt and springs in the mountains of southern New Mexico, the Gila is the southernmost snow-fed river in the United States. It was once perennial, running 649 miles until it emptied into the Colorado River. As the climate warms, scientists predict that by 2050 snow will no longer fall in the Black and Mogollon ranges that form the Gila’s headwaters, depriving the river of its major source of water.
“We’re seeing a combination of long-term climate change and really bad drought,” said David Gutzler, a professor emeritus of climatology at the University of New Mexico. If the drought is prolonged, he said, “that’s when we’ll see the river dry up.”
The same scenario is playing out on the once-mighty Colorado, the Rio Grande, and many smaller Southwest rivers, all facing what is often called a megadrought. Some research indicates that a southwestern U.S. megadrought may last decades, while other scientists fear the region is threatened by a permanent aridification because of rising temperatures.
Worldwide, said Ian Harrison, a freshwater expert with Conservation International, “pretty much where there are rivers in arid areas, they are suffering through a combination of climate change and development.”
Like the Gila, many of these rivers have high degrees of endemism. “Life is often highly specialized to those particular conditions and only lives on that one river, so the impacts of loss are catastrophic,” he said.
Rivers everywhere are important for biodiversity, but especially so in the desert, where 90 percent of life is found within a mile of the river. Nearly half of North America’s 900 or so bird species use the Gila and its tributaries, including some that live nowhere else in the U.S., such as the common blackhawk and northern beardless tyrannulet. Two endangered birds, the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, live along the Gila and its tributaries, including the San Pedro and the Salt.
Desert rivers, of course, make life in the desert possible for people, too. Growing crops in the perpetual heat of the desert can be highly lucrative, especially if the water is free or nearly so thanks to subsidies from the federal government. Agriculture is where most of the water in the Gila goes.
This spring, photographer Ted Wood and I made a journey along the length of the Gila, from the headwaters in New Mexico to west of Phoenix. In most of Arizona, the Gila is dry. Where it still flows, I was impressed by how such a relatively small river, under the right conditions, can be so life-giving. The trip brought home what desert rivers are up against as the climate changes, and also how much restoration, and what types, can be expected to protect the biodiversity that remains.
Our journey began at the river’s source, where Cliff Dweller Creek spills out of a shady canyon lined with Gambel oak in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The creek is barely a trickle here. Above the creek, ancestral Puebloans, known as Mogollon, once lived in dwellings wedged into caves, making pottery and tending vegetable gardens. The Mogollon abandoned these canyons in the 15th century, perhaps done in by an extended drought.
From inside a Mogollon cave, I looked out at rolling hills, covered with ponderosa pine, pinyon and juniper trees. The green-hued water gains volume where three forks come together near here. Historically, the mountain snow melts slowly each spring, providing high steady flows through April and May. Flows slow to a trickle in June. In July and August, monsoons pass through and, along with frontal systems, cause flash flooding and a rise in water levels.
Flooding is a “disturbance regime,” not unlike a forest fire, that rejuvenates aging, static ecosystems. A healthy river in the mountains of the West is one that behaves like a fire hose, whipping back and forth in a broad channel over time, flash flooding and then receding, moving gravel, rocks, logs and other debris throughout the system. A flooding river constantly demolishes some sections of a river and builds others, creating new habitat — cleaning silt from gravel so fish can spawn, for instance, or flushing sediment from wetlands. A river that flows over its banks, recharges aquifers and moistens the soil so that the seedlings of cottonwoods, mesquite trees and other vegetation can reproduce. Along healthy stretches of the Gila, birds are everywhere; I spotted numerous bluebirds in the branches of emerald green cottonwoods.
The riparian ecosystem that lines the 80 or so miles of the New Mexico portion is largely intact because of the protections afforded by federal wilderness areas, the lack of a dam, and the river’s flow not being completely siphoned off for farming. This is an anomaly in a state that has lost many of its riparian ecosystems. “This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.
The future of the New Mexico stretch of the river is uncertain because of the possibility of more water withdrawals and the loss of snowpack. “We’ve seen flows in the last 10 years lower than we’ve ever seen,” Siwik said. This year, she said, set an all-time low on the river, with flow less than 20 percent of normal.
Undammed, the Gila River through New Mexico still floods, refreshing the Cliff-Gila valley, which contains the largest intact bosque habitat in the Lower Colorado River Basin. The valley is home to the largest concentration of non-colonial breeding birds in North America. The river is also a stronghold for threatened and endangered species, such as nesting yellow-billed cuckoos, the Gila chub, Chiricahua leopard frogs and Mexican garter snakes all live there.
At odds with efforts to keep the Gila wild are plans by a group of roughly 200 long-time irrigators in southwestern New Mexico. Each summer they divert water from the Gila to flood-irrigate pastures, which de-waters stretches of the river. The irrigators have been trying to raise money to build impoundments to take even more of their share of water, but so far have been unsuccessful, in part because of opposition from conservation groups.
Cattle are another threat to the river’s biological integrity here — both unfenced domestic cattle and feral cows. Cattle break down riverbanks, widen the stream and raise water temperatures. They eat and trample riparian vegetation, causing mud and silt to choke the flow, and destroy habitat for endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity recently sued the U.S. Forest Service to force the agency to take action.
“We’re in a cow apocalypse,” said Todd Schulke, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are even in the recovered Gila River habitat. It’s just heartbreaking.”
As the river enters Arizona, the riparian ecology remains largely intact, especially in the 23 miles of the Gila Box National Riparian Area. Here, 23,000 acres of bosque habitat is in full expression, with thick stands of cottonwoods, velvet mesquite trees and sandy beaches. It is one of only two national riparian areas in the country set aside for its outstanding biodiversity; the other is on the San Pedro River.
As the river leaves the riparian area, it undergoes a striking change: massive cotton farms near the towns of Safford, Pima, and Thatcher, first planted in the 1930s, cover the landscape. The dried, brown stalks of harvested cotton plants stand in a field, bits of fluff on top. Growing cotton in the desert — which uses six times as much water as lettuce — has long been seen as folly by critics, made possible only by hefty federal subsidies.
Much of the flood pulse ecology is lost here, as the river is diverted or subject to groundwater pumping. Instead of flooding, the river cuts deeper into its channel, lowering the water table, which many plants can no longer reach. The cottonwood stands and other riparian habitats have disappeared. “You want the groundwater within five feet of the ground, but it’s mostly 8 to 12 feet,” said Melanie Tluczek, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership, which has been doing restoration here since 2014.
It is a harsh place for new planting. The river is dry in long stretches. Tamarisk, a pernicious invasive tree also known as salt cedar, needs to be cut down and its stumps poisoned to prevent regrowth. Small willows and Fremont cottonwoods have been planted on barren desert ground. Wire cages over infant trees keep elk, beaver and rabbits from gobbling them up.
Meanwhile, tamarisk grows prolifically, slurping up water, changing soil chemistry and the nature of flooding, robustly outcompeting natives, and increasing the risk of wildfire.
“If you can do restoration here, you can do it anywhere,” Tluczek said. She said the Gila Watershed Partnership has removed 216 acres of tamarisk along the river and planted 90 acres with new native trees. But the Gila here will never look like it did. “We can’t restore the past,” Tluczek said. “We’re going to see a floodplain that has more dryland species and fewer floodplain species.”
Downstream, the Coolidge Dam forms a giant concrete plug on the Gila. Built in the 1920s by the federal government, it was the result of irrational exuberance about the amount of water on the Gila and meant to supply farmers with water. Today, however, the reservoir is usually dry. Built to hold 19,500 acres of water, this year the water in the lake covered just 50 acres.
From here to Phoenix and on to the Colorado, water only occasionally flows in the Gila. Yet even the small amount of water that remains is vital to wildlife. “Where there has been water near the surface, animals smell it and will dig down in the sand in the riverbed to free it up,” Wilbor said. “You set up a camera and it’s like an African watering hole, with species after species taking turns to come use the water.”
Will the Gila River through most of Arizona to the Colorado ever be restored to a semblance of the biological jewel it once was? The chances are slim. But two pioneering efforts have brought back elements of the desiccated river.
In 2010, Phoenix completed a $100 million, eight-mile restoration of the long-dewatered Salt River where it joins the Gila and Agua Fria rivers at Tres Rios. Fed by water from the city’s sewage treatment plant across the road, this constructed complex includes 128 acres of wetlands, 38 acres of riparian corridor, and 134 acres of open water. It is thick with cattails and other vegetation, an island of green around a lake amid the sere surrounding desert.
On the nearby Gila River Indian Community, meanwhile, home to the Pima — or the name they prefer, Akimel O’othham, the river people — is something called a managed area recharge. The Akimel O’othham, who share their community with the Maricopa, are believed to be the descendants of the Hohokam, an ancient agricultural civilization with a vast network of irrigation canals that was largely abandoned centuries ago. The Akimel O’othham continued to farm along the Gila in historic times until their water was stolen from them in the late 19th century by settlers who dug a canal in front of the reservation and drained it away.
After a century of the Akimel O’othham fighting for their water rights, in 2004 the Arizona Water Settlement Act provided the tribe with the largest share of Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project, a share larger than the city of Phoenix’s allotment. The tribe is now water-rich, using much of that water to restore its tribal agricultural past, though with modern crops and methods.
Last year, some of the Colorado River water was released into the Gila to be stored in an underground aquifer and used to create a wetland.
Both of these projects, at Tres Rios and at the reservation, have created oases in a harsh desert landscape, bringing back an array of birds and wildlife, and — in the case of the Akimel O’othham — helping revitalize the cultural traditions of these river people.
“We’re not going to have rivers with native species in the Southwest unless we can protect and restore these systems,” especially with a changing climate, Siwik said. “Protecting the best, restoring the rest — or else we lose these systems that we need for our survival.”
The controversial Gila River diversion project has entered a “closeout” phase.
With no discussion, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission on Wednesday approved several line item transfers within the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project’s 2021 budget, as well as a closing budget for the 2022 fiscal year to pay for a final annual financial audit of the group.
The N.M. CAP Entity’s executive director, Anthony Gutierrez, addressed the ISC before it voted unanimously to approve the two items.
“I know this has been a long process,” he said. “Our members and myself were disappointed with not being able to develop AWSA water, but we certainly respect the decisions that the commission has made in the past few months.”
Gutierrez acknowledged that one of those decisions “was to discontinue the budget for the New Mexico CAP Entity,” which paid for, among other things, his salary. It also covered Entity attorney Pete Domenici’s fees, for which $139,500 was originally budgeted this fiscal year.
FromThe High Country News [May 13, 2021] (Sharon Udasin):
Through partnerships and exchanges, the community is ensuring that its members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems.
A riverbed that has been parched since the end of the 19th century — a portion of the historic lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community — is now coursing again with water, luring things like cattails and birds back to its shores.
“You add water and stuff just immediately starts coming back naturally. Birds have returned and it’s just such a different experience,” says Jason Hauter, an attorney and a community member. “It’s amazing how much has returned.”
The revival of this small segment of the 649-mile (1045-kilometer) Gila River, which has served the tribes that make up the Gila River Indian Community — the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) — for roughly 2,000 years, was an added benefit of a grassroots infrastructure overhaul, known as “managed aquifer recharge,” or MAR, which aimed to restore the local groundwater basin. The MAR project has not only secured a water supply for local agriculture, but it has also generated a stable source of income and strengthened the community’s ties to tradition.
“The land started to heal itself, reinvigorate itself,” says Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, who recently began his third term as leader of the Gila River Indian Community.
Hauter credits Lewis and his colleagues for ensuring that community members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems in the region through innovative partnerships and exchanges with neighbors.
“They are very thoughtful about future generations, but they also recognize they live in this larger community and that you have to collaborate,” Hauter says. “Encouraging your neighbors to have good water practices, but also helping your neighbors, is good water policy.”
A particularly longstanding claim to water rights
The ins and outs of water management and usage in the West are complex. In a region where every drop is important, questions about water — such as who gets what, how it’s moved from one place to another, and who pays for it — are vital to communities’ capacity to survive and thrive. These decisions are often based on century-plus-old legal doctrines that don’t always fit neatly into a modern, warming world — or address longstanding disregard for Native American tribal nations’ rights.
Western U.S. states adhere to legal doctrines called “prior appropriation” — sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right” — linked to the mid-19th century Gold Rush and the Homestead Act, through which miners and farmers were able to claim and divert water sources for “beneficial use” — defined by activities such as irrigation, industry, power production and domestic use. A 1908 Supreme Court case ruled that the federal decision to establish Native American reservations inherently meant there would be sufficient water for those reservations. The priority date for water rights on these reservations therefore had to match the date of establishment, meaning that many tribal nations’ water rights took precedence over those of most existing users. During the past few decades, these nations have largely opted for settlements with the relevant federal, state and private bodies, rather than entering extensive and costly litigation to recover their water rights.
These settlements allow tribal nations to take part in the competitive markets that have long ruled water in the West. These markets involve things like selling water rights, getting money for helping mitigate drought and accruing “credit” from the Arizona Water Banking Authority by storing water in underground basins administered by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
One such pivotal settlement came in 2004: To resolve tribal water rights claims, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlement Act, which allocates a set amount of water each year to the Gila River Indian Community, drawing that water budget from a variety of sources in Arizona. The community had a particularly longstanding claim to water rights due to its two-millennia history of farming, curtailed when miners and white settlers began diverting water following the Civil War. The governor’s late father, Rodney Lewis, devoted his career as Gila River Tribal Attorney to fighting for a just water settlement.
“It was the theft of our water, so this was a generational historic struggle to regain our water,” Lewis says. “We were and we still are historically agriculturalists, farmers. Our lineage, our ancestors were the Huhugam. And the Huhugam civilization had pretty much cultivated the modern-day Phoenix area in central Arizona.”
“They were master builders,” he adds, referring to complex water systems and canals that he says rivaled those of the Nile Valley.
As more and more nations regain control of their water resources, they are securing a critical provision for the long-term financial prosperity of their people and protection of their lands.
Mutually beneficial partnerships
As often occurs in tribal water rights settlements, the 2004 agreement served to restore the Gila River Indian Community’s claims to the river and its tributaries without displacing the descendants “of those who committed the original sin,” says Hauter, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which currently serves as outside counsel for the Community.
Toward that end, Hauter says, “really, what’s provided is an alternative supply.”
That alternative supply comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), an infrastructural behemoth that conveys about 1.5 million acre-feet (1.85 billion cubic meters; one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons) of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year. Serving as the single largest renewable water supply for the state of Arizona, the 336-mile (540-kilometer) system was authorized by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, soon after which construction by the Bureau of Reclamation began. Three years later, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a multi-county water district — formed to repay the federal government for the project’s costs and oversee regional water supply.
Through the 2004 settlement, the Gila River Indian Community has the single largest CAP entitlement — bigger than that of the city of Phoenix — at 311,800 acre-feet (385 million cubic meters), Hauter explains. Finding mutual benefit in helping quench the thirst of the surrounding region, the community entered into various water exchanges and leases that delivered about 60,000 acre-feet (74 million cubic meters) to Phoenix and other municipalities annually and left about 250,000-acre-feet (308 million cubic meters) for its own purposes, according to Hauter.
But this sudden surplus from the CAP actually posed a problem.
Pumping water from the project, community members understood, would eventually become prohibitive due to water transport and associated electricity costs. The Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, covers the Fixed OM&R (operation, maintenance and replacement) for certain Arizona tribes with settlements, but funding is only projected to last until 2045, Hauter explains.
The community was using only about 50,000 acre-feet (62 million cubic meters) for irrigation purposes, leaving about 200,000-acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) unused, Hauter says. Because any unused CAP water can be remarketed by the state, Arizonans began counting on the community to not use its full share.
With the legal guidance of Hauter and his team, the community launched a strategic venture to store, share and sell much more of its CAP water in 2010.
The first such partnership occurred with former water supply rival the Salt River Project, the name of the utilities responsible for providing most of Phoenix’s water and power. Had the community decided to enter litigation to recover its water rights, rather than settling, the Salt River Project could have faced enormous supply losses.
But the former rivals instead became partners, after identifying that the Salt River Project’s underground storage facility (USF), the Granite Reef Underground Storage Project, was an ideal place to store a portion of the CAP allocation the Gila River Indian Community was not currently using. The partnership has enabled the Salt River Project to withdraw water from storage — while maintaining a “safe yield,” or making sure any water that is taken from aquifers is replenished. In return, the community has gained long-term storage credit, Hauter explains. Such storage credit enables the holder to bank CAP water and, when necessary, recover the water for future use.
The community also stores water in groundwater savings facilities (GSF), including one operated by the Salt River Project and another south of the Gila River operated by the Maricopa Stanfield Drainage District. While a USF physically stores water in the aquifer through direct recharge, a GSF is an “indirect” recharge facility that uses CAP water instead of pumping local groundwater.
In what Hauter described as an “in lieu” agreement, the community provides the operators of these GSF facilities with a renewable water supply — another portion of its CAP allocation — and so reduces the Salt River Project and Maricopa District’s need to extract groundwater. In return, the community gets storage credit for the water that can remain in the ground.
“Everything we needed was at the river”
While these external collaborations bolstered the resilience of the community, as well as that of the arid surrounding region, Gila River residents only really saw the revival of their long-lost local waterway when community leaders launched a homegrown storage initiative. Recognizing the value in keeping some unused CAP resources at home, they chose to establish a network of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) sites. This type of underground storage allows for the free flow of water from a naturally permeable area, such as a streambed, into an aquifer, as opposed to “constructed recharge” sites that involve injecting water into percolation basins by means of a constructed device.
In order to implement these plans, the Gila River Indian Community came to an agreement with Arizona to acquire state regulatory permits for the MAR projects, despite the fact that tribal nations have sovereign control over water management. As a result of this decision, the community has been able to market long-term storage credits in a sort of environmentally friendly banking system that allows more groundwater to stay in the ground.
“They realized they could get multiple benefits from deciding to have their project permitted per the Arizona regulations,” says Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
“They voluntarily chose to abide by the regulations for storage and recovery and therefore come under the whole credit accrual and accounting system,” she continues, stressing that not only can credits be used to recover water when needed in the future, but they can also be purchased by outside entities, which creates a revenue stream for the community. “That’s really exciting.”
Three MAR facilities are already operating on the reservation today: MAR-5, the Olberg Dam underground storage facility, permitted in 2018; MAR-1B, the Cholla Mountain underground storage facility, permitted in 2020; and MAR-6B, a western and downstream expansion of MAR-5, which came online a few months ago. Construction of MAR-8, located downstream from MAR-5, will be complete in a few years, according to Hauter.
Hauter adds that it was only while planning the initial MAR-5 site that community members envisioned the riparian restoration program that served “to recreate the river,” allowing cattails and other plants to blossom and enabling community members to create baskets and traditional medicines. Although the idea of restoring the river was secondary to the storage plans, Hauter says that its flow is intrinsic to the community’s culture.
“The tangible benefit for most members is really having the river back to some degree,” Hauter adds. “It wasn’t something the settlement intended to accomplish, but the settlement gave the community the tools to make it happen.”
Lewis and his father, who had already retired at the time, used those tools to see the first MAR site to fruition. The Lewises and their colleagues understood the benefit in adopting innovative methods for accumulating water at their future storage site.
“He truly saw the MAR-5 as a living testament to our historic tie to the Gila River,” the governor says, adding that his father considered the facility an opportunity to “return the flow of the river.”
With the revived river flow, the riparian habitat quickly began blossoming, including 50 documented species of birds within the first year of MAR-5’s operations, Lewis says. An interpretive trail now weaves through the once arid wetland, providing educational signposts and offering sacred cultural spaces for spiritual practice, Lewis explains. Elders are now taking advantage of the plants and silt available to engage in traditional basket weaving, medicine making and pottery, he adds.
“They still remember the river sometimes flowing and the smell of the water,” Lewis says.
In recent years, before the opening of the MAR-5 site, the channel filled with water only in particularly wet seasons involving floods or heavy snowpack upstream, according to Lewis.
“Everything we needed was at the river,” he adds. “That was our lifeblood.”
Continuing to plan for a drought-ridden future
In conjunction with the opening of the MAR facilities, the community cemented a pivotal agreement in 2019 with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), a groundwater replenishment entity operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Through this agreement, CAGRD leases 18,185 acre-feet (22 million cubic meters) of the community’s CAP water and stores the majority of that water in the MAR sites, while receiving long-term storage credits in return from the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Only if the MAR facilities are full is CAGRD allowed to store the leased water elsewhere, Hauter explains.
Alongside the MAR projects, the community has also been rehabilitating existing wells and building new ones in order to create a backup supply for agricultural use when Gila River flow is minimal. Well water is less expensive than CAP water, since wells can recharge naturally during storms — so much so that such events collectively add at least 100,000 acre-feet (123 million cubic meters) to the community’s annual water supply, according to Hauter.
The community took additional steps to reroute its CAP supplies after the federal government and the seven Colorado River Basin States implemented their drought contingency plans, meant to elevate water levels in Lake Mead, in 2020. As part of that regional effort, Hauter explains, the Community is providing a total of at least 200,000 acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) of water to be stored in Lake Mead from 2020 to 2026, when the drought contingency plans expire. For its contribution, the Community gets money through the Arizona Water Bank and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Only through the community’s creative collaborations and homegrown projects has so much of its CAP entitlement been able to help replenish Lake Mead, Hauter says. Today, the community has reduced its CAP water usage for irrigation to 15,000 acre-feet (19 million cubic meters) per year, while its CAP water storage capacity in the MAR projects is up to about 40,000 acre-feet (49 million cubic meters) per year. After construction of MAR-8 is complete, total CAP water use for storage and irrigation will reach about 75,000 acre-feet (93 million cubic meters), Hauter says.
As the community’s leaders continue to plan for a drought-ridden future, they are evaluating whether it will be necessary to use more of its CAP allocation for their own needs. At the moment, much of the reservation’s agriculture involves water-intensive crops like alfalfa, feed corn and cotton. An overhaul of the farming infrastructure, according to Hauter, would require “changing attitudes about how food is grown” and incorporating more efficient technologies, as well as encouraging farming among younger people.
Overall, Hauter says, “it’s an exciting future for the community, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 or so years.”
Lewis is confident that the community’s agricultural tradition will remain strong, particularly due to the younger generation’s concerns for social justice, equity and environmental issues.
“We want to provide opportunities for our community members to re-engage in any way in our agricultural heritage,” he says. “We’ve always been innovators, going back to the Huhugam with their amazing engineering.”
In addition to the commercial company Gila River Farms, which is owned by the tribe and employs community members, Lewis says that local family farms continue to thrive. Lewis also says that “there’s a big push” for young people to obtain degrees in agro-business, hydrology, water engineering and other relevant fields that will provide them with a livelihood while working for their community — a place that has become even more special to them during the pandemic year.
“It’s a public health emergency that we’ve been going through,” Lewis adds. “But at the same time, I think this is an opportunity where you see a lot [of] our younger generation that are wanting to learn who it is to be from the Gila River Indian Community.”
“A total win-win”
While the MAR projects and the larger water exchange deals serve to safeguard the community’s water supplies, Hauter says he’s uncertain as to whether neighboring tribal nations could replicate this model. Other tribes, he explains, might have different agricultural interests or economic concerns, as well as varying geological and hydrological conditions.
In Megdal’s opinion, at least one aspect of the community’s strategy could be replicable regardless of geography: the strategic accrual and marketing of long-term storage credits in permitted recharge facilities. The Gila River Indian Community has diversified its portfolio of storage credit and sales through “multiple vehicles,” she explains, including its MAR projects, the Salt River Project partnership, and its transfer of credits to CAGRD.
“They are able to meet their objectives including having riparian benefits and river benefits and sell the credits — because the credits are then recovered elsewhere … For them, it’s like a total win-win,” Megdal says, adding that she considers the community’s achievements to be “a bellwether project.”
Already, she says, the Tucson-region Tohono O’odham Nation has begun selling some credits to CAGRD. Acknowledging that the two cases involve varying geological and legislative circumstances, Megdal stresses that the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated the benefits of the storage and credit accrual system.
“These long-term storage credits are the most marketable part of the water system,” Megdal says. “It’s an emerging market, and the Gila River Indian Community has emerged as a key leader in that market.”
“I see this example of a tribal nation entering voluntarily into an intergovernmental agreement with the state so that all the parties can develop these mutually beneficial exchanges or marketing transactions in a voluntary way,” she adds. “It’s really a notable innovation.”
Sharon Udasin is a Boulder-based journalist, with specialties in environment, water and energy.
This article, produced jointly by California Health Report and High Country News, is part of a collaboration that also includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Circle of Blue, Columbia Insight, Ensia, New Mexico In Depth and SJV Water. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.
This story was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and the Institute for Nonprofit News’s Amplify News Project.
A recent trio of storms that provided significant moisture to many parts of San Juan County has brought the snowpack up to near normal in the mountains of southwest Colorado for the first time all season.
But it did little to make a dent in the drought that has plagued the area for the last year and a half.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summary for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, the snowpack stood at 89% of normal and 84% of average on Feb. 19. That was a significant step up from just 10 days earlier, when those figures were near 60% and falling rapidly.
Sharon Sullivan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service bureau in Albuquerque, said those figures were buoyed by storms that left 4 to 5 inches of snow in parts of Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield from Feb. 12 through Feb. 16.
But anyone who takes this as a sign that the drought has been chased away would be well advised to curb his or her enthusiasm. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of San Juan County remains locked in exceptional drought, the worst classification. That includes all but the southwest corner of the county, which is characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category, or severe drought, the third-worst category in the five-tier drought system…
The outlook for significant additional moisture is not promising. Sullivan said the long-range forecast calls for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in the area.
San Juan County residents may find some small consolation in the fact that conditions are even worse in other parts of the state. According to the drought monitor, 54.2% of the state is characterized as being in exceptional drought — a condition that can lead to the closure of federal lands for fire precautions, the implementation of burn bans by local governments, the encroachment of bears on developed areas, a change in flight patterns by migratory birds and the absence of surface water for agricultural use, leading farmers to rely on wells.
The state’s southeast corner has been hit the hardest, with two counties — Eddy County and Chaves County — entirely in exceptional drought, and four others — De Baca, Curry, Roosevelt and Lea counties — having only small slivers of their territory escaping that designation. Additionally, most of Lincoln and Torrance counties are in exceptional drought.
The 25 reservoirs in the Colorado Springs Utilities network of water storage, still have several years of water stored. Another dry year could take a toll.
Snowpack started slow in December and January. “February 1st we were looking at snowpack averages maybe 75 to 78% of average,” said [Kalsoum] Abbasi. In the two weeks since then multiple snowstorms helped make up for low totals. Numbers in the water basins important to Colorado Springs are now at or just below normal. It’s certainly a relief to see those numbers go up the past couple of weeks.”February is when data tracking for the Colorado snow season officially begins. It is off to a good start, but the numbers have to be maintained with more storms through May.
With a proposal in Santa Fe threatening its very existence, the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project — the group that was formed in 2015 to build the ultimately unsuccessful Gila diversion project — is having to defend the role it could play when it comes to administering the more than $80 million in the N.M. Unit Fund.
The massive pot of money is destined to be spent, per the 2004 federal Arizona Water Settlements Act, either on a New Mexico Unit,” i.e., a surface water diversion, or on other water utilization alternatives to meet water supply demands in the Southwest Water Planning Region of New Mexico.”
Since the Entity’s diversion project was put down last summer, the second option is now on the table, and the diversion group wants a say in who and what gets funded.
Ultimately, how that $80 million is spent — and it may only be spent on projects within the counties of Luna, Hidalgo, Catron and Grant — is determined by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission in consultation with the Southwest New Mexico Water Study Group or its successor,” according to the 2004 law. But whether the N.M. CAP Entity is the true successor” to the original study group is debatable, according to the Entity’s opponents.
The argument in favor
Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, executive director of the ISC, has repeatedly stated that the Entity is the successor organization, and should be considered the consultant group” that will help vet water projects for future funding.
The New Mexico CAP Entity has documentation designating it as the successor to the Southwest New Mexico Water Study Group,” Schmidt-Petersen wrote in a Feb. 3 analysis of HB 200 that was requested by Legislative Finance Committee Fiscal Analyst Caitlyn Wan. Further, the New Mexico CAP Entity has been receiving funding from the NMISC, in part, as the successor to the Southwest New Mexico Water Study Group.”
The Entity’s executive director, Anthony Gutierrez, told the Daily Press that, in addition to state and federal law, the Entity’s documentation” consists of the records from the past 17 years of the succession from the original group.”
Schmidt-Petersen has argued that the Entity is an ideal foundation on which to build a four-county stakeholder group — something like the Eastern New Mexico Water Authority, the board of which is composed of representatives from two counties, several municipalities and Cannon Air Force Base, and which oversees the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System. In his vision, Schmidt-Petersen sees the Entity as nearly tailor-made to identify important water projects in the four counties.
Its members are representatives from the four-county region of southwest New Mexico,” Schmidt-Petersen noted in his analysis: That is, designated representatives from Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, and Luna counties; the cities of Deming and Lordsburg; [the] village of Santa Clara” — although Lordsburg’s representative hasn’t attended a meeting in months, and Santa Clara’s representative hasn’t attended a meeting in years — the Hidalgo Soil and Water Conservation District, San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District, Grant Soil and Water Conservation District; and Fort West Irrigation Association, Gila Farm Irrigation Association, Gila Hot Springs Irrigation Association, and Upper Gila Irrigation Association all sit on the N.M. CAP Entity Board.”
The ISC itself sits on the Entity’s board as a nonvoting member, but ultimately the state agency approves any Unit Fund allocations. Whether any other stakeholders will eventually join — the town of Silver City is conspicuous in its absence — remains to be seen.
The argument against
New Mexico is divided into 16 water planning regions. Does the N.M. CAP Entity best represent the four-county area that makes up the Southwest Planning Region?
The Entity’s critics say no, and argue that the agriculture-centric membership of the Entity also lacks the expertise and motivation to serve as a water planning group for the region.
Although the state ended diversion planning last June, the Entity continues to prioritize development of a Gila diversion,” Allyson Siwik, executive director for the Gila Conservation Coalition, said in a statement.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s Todd Schulke told the Daily Press that, without a diversion to build, the Entity’s mission is forfeit, according to his group’s legal interpretation, because the 2004 federal law only mentions the N.M. CAP Entity in relation to building a diversion to capture surface water allocated to New Mexico in the settlement — not as having any role in determining how settlement money might be spent on non-unit” projects.
“Worse than silent, the New Mexico CAP Entity is mentioned elsewhere in the AWSA [only] in conjunction with N.M. Unit provisions,” Schulke said. That Congress did not specify the N.M. CAP Entity in Section 212(i) when it specified the N.M. CAP Entity in many other places demonstrates that Congress didn’t presume the N.M. CAP Entity would be the ‘successor’” to the Southwest New Mexico Water Study Group.
In the AWSA, the N.M. CAP Entity is defined as “the entity or entities that the state of New Mexico may authorize to assume responsibility for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and replacement of the New Mexico Unit.”
A bill now pending in the state Legislature, HB 200, titled ※Water Trust Board Projects and N.M. Unit Fund,” goes even further and, in a move that has the Entity’s members crying foul, proposes canceling the diversion group’s role entirely by striking it from the state statute governing the N.M. Unit Fund and handing over the successor role” to the New Mexico Water Trust Board — an entity that has no representation from the four-county region, but has had plenty of experience vetting water projects for funding since it was created in 2001.
The bill now has three co-sponsors in addition to District 50 Rep. Matthew McQueen, who originally introduced the legislation: District 17 senator and Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, District 36 Rep. Nathan Small and District 28 Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill.
Were HB 200 to be signed into law, the ISC would still retain authority over which projects are ultimately funded.
In a resolution adopted during its special meeting Wednesday, the Entity took its stance in opposition to the legislation…
At Wednesday’s special meeting, Howard Hutchinson, who represents the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District on the Entity, and who will testify when the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee meets to discuss the bill Saturday, went further still, arguing that the whole purpose” of the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act and the subsequent 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act ※is diversion and storage for New Mexico water users.”
2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.
Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. But while environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.
The watershed’s ongoing aridification, with record-breaking hot and dry conditions over the last 20 years, and lessened federal financial support for large-scale water projects is adding more pressure on projects that attempt to divert water to fast-growing communities or slow the purchase of agricultural water supplies.
Gila River. Photo credit: Dennis O’Keefe via American Rivers
Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia
In New Mexico, a “solid plan” fails to materialize
Introduced in 2004, when Arizona settled tribal water rights with the Gila River Indian Community, the diversion was billed as a way to provide much needed water supplies for four, mostly rural New Mexican counties.
“The most recent plan was to build this diversion in the Cliff-Gila Valley,” Paskus said. “And to provide water to irrigators,” like farmers and ranchers.
What propelled the project forward was a federal subsidy to cover some of the costs associated with planning and building. Thorny questions over the project’s total cost, its eventual operation and the financial burden of those who would receive the water were present from the start, Paskus said, but the idea of leaving federal dollars unspent kept the effort alive for more than a decade.
“But there was never a really solid plan of how it would be built, or how it would be paid for,” she said. [ed. emphasis mine]
Failure to come up with a plan finally sank the proposal in June this year. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, which had thrown its weight behind the project five years earlier, voted to stop spending money on environmental reviews related to the diversion. Roughly $17 million had already been spent on engineering plans and consultants over the years…
Legal troubles for the Las Vegas pipeline
A similar drama played out in Nevada earlier this year. For decades water providers in Las Vegas have pursued a $15 billion plan to pump groundwater from northern Nevada, and pipe it 300 miles south to the fast-growing metro area in the Mojave Desert…
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency pushing for the pipeline, hit legal hurdles this past spring. Just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, a judge denied some water rights associated with the project. A month later the water authority chose not to appeal and tabled the pipeline altogether…
Litigation threat puts Utah pipeline on notice
Rising costs have long been at the heart of criticism over the Lake Powell pipeline, a proposal to spend upwards of $2 billion to build a 140-mile water pipeline from the beleaguered Colorado River reservoir to rapidly expanding communities in southwest Utah.
But you can now add political and potential legal troubles to the mix of factors that could put the pipeline’s future in question. And seeing the successes in other parts of the Southwest are giving Utah’s environmental advocates hope that it too can be derailed completely.
“The state of Utah is proposing to divert Colorado River water down the Lake Powell pipeline simply to use more of its water rights out of the Colorado River,” said Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, one of the groups opposed to the pipeline.
But opposition to the pipeline doesn’t end with environmentalists. Political pressure from other users on the river is slowing it down. In September, in the midst of a new environmental review from the Bureau of Reclamation, every other state that relies on the river besides Utah teamed up to say the project has too many unresolved issues to move forward…
The lesson here, according to Paskus, is that many of these proposals rely on outdated ideas about our relationship to water in the arid West, and that plans will have to change as the region warms.
“This current megadrought began in the mid-1990s. So if you do the calculations, 25 years now,” said Dr. Kevin Murphy, researcher of Hydro-climatology at Arizona State University.
Megadroughts can run 10 to 30 years. Dr. Kevin Murphy from ASU looked at tree ring records and found our current one.
“This has been the most severe megadrought over 1,000 years; that’s what we found by looking at the records,” said Dr. Murphy.
A drought like this can put a significant stress on our water supply.
“The Salt River Project was formed in 1903. It was a direct result of the severe drought that occurred between 1898 and 1905,” said Charlie Ester, Water Manager for SRP. That project has kept the water supply flowing into the Valley ever since…
The Salt and Verde rivers rely on mother nature to keep them replenished, with 75 percent of the water coming from our winter storms.
In a major victory for one of the Southwest’s last major free flowing rivers, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted 7-2 on Friday to end work on the Environmental Impact Statement for the Gila River diversion. The threat of the diversion spurred American Rivers to name the Gila America’s Most Endangered River® of 2019.
“This is a resounding victory for last year’s Most Endangered River and one of New Mexico’s greatest natural treasures. We applaud our partners for their years of work and the Interstate Stream Commission for recognizing the value of the free-flowing Gila River,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers.
The Gila River Diversion has long been a contentious, wasteful proposal, that would have devastated New Mexico’s last major wild river. Partners including the Gila River Indian Community, Gila Conservation Coalition, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance and Center for Biological Diversity have been vital to the effort to stop the diversion.
Flowing out of the nation’s first Wilderness Area, the Gila River supports outstanding examples of southwestern riparian forest, cold-water fisheries and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The Gila River is important to Indigenous peoples who have lived in southwestern New Mexico for thousands of years. Many cultural sites are found along the Gila River and throughout the watershed.
“Our people have lived on the banks of the Gila River in Arizona for thousands of years, and we have watched our River dwindle through overuse in the Upper Valley,” said Governor Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, located in Arizona on the banks of the Gila River. “We have known for decades that our River is in danger, so we were pleased to partner with American Rivers in the fight to protect the River. The action by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to end funding for the proposed Gila River diversion is a significant victory in our common fight to protect the Keli Akimel, as we call the River in our language. Hopefully, with this decision, we can put this wasteful proposal behind us for good. Our fight to protect the Gila will never be over, but this is a resounding victory and I want to thank our partner, American Rivers, for all their hard work in helping to bring this about.”
The diversion could have dried up the Gila River, impacting fish and wildlife and the local outdoor recreation and tourism economy. The diversions and infrastructure would have harmed critical habitat for seven threatened or endangered species. Declining groundwater levels caused by the diversion and new groundwater pumping would have threatened the cottonwood-sycamore-willow bosque, some of the last remaining intact riparian forest in the Lower Colorado River Basin.
Now that the diversion proposal is dead, the commission will have the opportunity to re-allocate nearly $70 million to more river-friendly, shovel-ready, local water supply projects benefitting tens of thousands of residents across Southwestern New Mexico, including infrastructure improvements in Deming, Lordsburg, Silver City, and greater Grant County.
In a 7-2 vote Thursday morning, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission declined to further fund the National Environmental Policy Act process for the controversial proposed Gila River diversion project in southwestern New Mexico.
The decision to stop work on the federally required environmental impact statement effectively prevents the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project, otherwise known as the N.M. CAP Entity, from pursuing its proposed development of 14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water under the terms of the 2004 federal Arizona Water Settlements Act. Any project that seeks to develop the AWSA water or use money from the New Mexico Unit Fund — the monetary component of the settlement — is required to complete an environmental impact statement as part of the process.
The move also portends a major policy shift regarding how the remaining $70 million in settlement funds will likely be spent, with the focus moving to so-called “non-Unit projects,” such as municipal and regional water supply projects.
As part of his beat, Geoffrey Plant of the Silver City Daily Press covers water issues, including the proposed diversion of the Gila River that has garnered interest across New Mexico and the nation. In his conversation with correspondent Laura Paskus, Plant looks ahead to irrigation season given New Mexico’s drought conditions. He also talks about the release of a draft environmental impact statement concerning the proposed Gila River diversion and how the local community has responded to a bill introduced by New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich that would designate the Gila River and parts of its watershed as Wild and Scenic.
Portions of the Gila River would be designated as “wild and scenic” under legislation unveiled [May 12, 2020] by New Mexico’s two U.S. senators…
The measure would cover more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) of the Gila River, San Francisco River and numerous creeks. It also calls for expanding the boundaries of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument by transferring management of less than a square mile (1.8 square kilometers) from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service.
The legislation comes as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission gather comments on an environmental review of a proposal to divert and store some of the water.
Environmentalists have been pushing for years to stop any kind of diversion along the Gila, suggesting that siphoning water from the river would end up being a costly boondoggle. Supporters say the project is vital to supplying communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water as drought persists.
The legislation unveiled by Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich aims to protect the area’s beauty and wildlife by maintaining the river’s “free-flowing nature.” The Democrats say the measure would preserve private property and water rights as well as irrigation and water delivery obligations, grazing permits and public access.
The senators first floated a draft in February, saying they wanted to hear from landowners, outdoor enthusiasts, local officials and others. Changes include protecting existing uses and language to ensure planned projects like broadband infrastructure development can continue.
Additional protections were included for property owners to prohibit non-voluntary condemnation of land, and a section was added to allow restoration projects even if river values are affected, as long as water quality, habitats and species are protected.
Udall called the Gila an irreplaceable treasure…
Heinrich said protection under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would be fitting as the landscapes and ecosystems shaped by the Gila and its tributaries inspired the establishment of the nation’s first wilderness area nearly a century ago.
There are nearly 125 miles (200 kilometers) of river segments in New Mexico already designated under the act. Those include parts of the Rio Grande, Rio Chama, Pecos River and the Jemez River.
The fight over the Gila has been percolating for years.
Under the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, New Mexico is entitled to 14,000 acre-feet of water a year, or about 4.5 billion gallons. State officials opted to build a diversion system, as that alternative opened the door to more federal funding.
However, state water officials missed a deadline in December to have an environmental review completed and approved by the federal government in order to free up additional funding.
Plans to build a diversion dam on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico have hit another snag. The Interior Department has denied a state entity an extension to receive $56 million in diversion construction funds.
The New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity still has nearly $70 million in the New Mexico Unit Fund for a Gila diversion and regional water projects. But the loss of more federal money means less infrastructure, and less water that could be diverted from the river. In 15 years, the state has spent nearly $15 million planning for a diversion.
Under the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, the CAP Entity had until the end of this month to receive a federal record of decision on environmental impact statements to obtain $56 million.
CAP Entity Executive Director Anthony Gutierrez and lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. visited Washington, D.C., in October to petition for an extension.
Timothy Petty, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, informed the state of the decision on Dec. 20.
Petty said in a letter that New Mexico’s “slow pace of progress” on the diversion plans showed a “lack of urgency” for delivering water to rural communities.
“Even today, a feasible project with necessary funding and contractual commitments has not been identified to enable project success,” he wrote. “It’s a disappointment this project, that would bring critical water supplies to rural communities in New Mexico, has faced such scrutiny and a lack of support from the State of New Mexico.”
Several alterations to the diversion plans were made as recently as July. The changes slashed project cost estimates by about $83million but also reduced the amount of water that could be diverted from the Gila.
Here’s a report from Andrew Davey writing for Nevada Today. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Around this time last year, Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered this ultimatum to CRWUA attendees: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” This year, as in just yesterday, Burman said, “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.”
And unlike last year, when Burman urged officials from across the Colorado River Basin to finish the DCP already, this year she urged patience on matters like renegotiating the 2007 agreement that turned Lake Mead into a sort of regional water bank. On that, Burman declared, “It’s not yet time to take up that task.”
Yet despite Burman’s more relaxed approach, some at CRWUA want to see more “fierce urgency of now”. While the DCP successfully fended off the threat of federal water rations, and while Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is currently running 15% above average, ongoing legal concerns and the ever escalating threat of climate change may yet upend the delicate peace that the DCP has ushered in for now…
While Burman voiced confidence in the states’, municipal water agencies’, and Native American tribal authorities’ ability to cooperate, some of these very local officials were voicing notes of warning and caution. Shortly after Burman’s presentation on the main stage, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino noted their use of data from the U.S. Geological Survey and UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) showing less Colorado River water for everyone to work with in the next 50 years.
As Pellegrino described this challenge, “It’s a pretty severe stress test for our water resource portfolio.” Pellegrino then noted how SNWA and the larger community have already been rising to this challenge with conservation programs like outdoor watering schedules and turf removal. As Pellegrino put it, “There’s significant water savings to be achieved by changing the mindset of how we use it.”
Later in the day, I caught up with Pellegrino to talk some more about her presentation and the challenges that lie ahead for her agency and the entire region. When asked how SNWA plans to handle those future challenges, she replied, “Conservation is still right here, under our noses, the quickest and most cost effective way.”
[Friday], it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s turn to make news here in Nevada. And make news he did, as Bernhardt announced the federal government will launch an early start of its review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (as in, the 2007 agreement that launched the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply).
Soon after his main floor presentation, Bernhardt spoke with reporters about this and other pressing water issues. On his announcement to jump-start review of the Interim Guidelines, Bernhardt said, “We have an opportunity right now. We have the people in place. We might as well build on the success we have here.”
So what can we expect in this review? And for that matter, what kinds of future changes might we expect in federal oversight of the Colorado River? When I asked Bernhardt whether he’d take into account climate science and the changing needs and consumption patterns of the increasingly urban American Southwest, he replied, “I’ve never taken a position of what we need to tell a city or county what they need to do.”
Yet as Bernhardt’s discussion with reporters continued, the conversation occasionally veered into other environmental matters. And when a couple reporters asked about the proposed oil and gas leases on public lands that have run into local opposition, including right here in Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko and in parts of Lincoln County that supply drinking water for Mesquite, Bernhardt declared, “The president was clear when he ran for office what his policy is on energy. He supports an ‘all of the above’ approach.” Bernhardt also suggested these leases are required by federal statute, even though the Obama administration took a more cautious and targeted approach toward such fossil fuel extraction on public lands…
Funny enough, one of my takeaways from my conversation with SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino on Thursday was that regardless of what becomes of the long-fought pipeline plan, SNWA has enough water available to keep the Las Vegas region going for the next 50 years. Also, I noticed that regardless of the Trump administration’s curious comments on climate change and “all of the above” approaches to water infrastructure and fossil fuels, SNWA officials recognize the clear and present danger of climate change, and they’re already acting on it.
And it may not just be SNWA doing this. Even as Trump appointees are skirting around acknowledgement of climate science, fossil fuel pollution, ongoing regional tensions, or the reality of urban and suburban growth in the Colorado River Basin, federal civil servants continue to collect data, analyze trends, and manage the water we all share. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Still, there’s a rather large gap between the rhetoric and overarching policies of the Trump administration and the promises of strong climate action that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden, and the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are providing. And yet, we don’t hear as much about the Colorado River and our fragile water supply as you’d expect considering their environmental and geopolitical importance. Yet no matter how much we ignore it, all we have to do is glimpse at Lake Mead to remember how important it truly is to our very livelihood.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told federal, state and local water managers that abiding by the promises they made will be crucial to ensuring that more painful cuts aren’t required…
“We need to be proud of what we’ve done,” Burman told hundreds at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort, while also warning of “tougher challenges in the future.”
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the river Jan. 1 under a drought contingency agreement signed in May. It followed lengthy negotiations and multiple warnings from Burman that if the seven states didn’t reach a deal, the federal government, which controls the levers on the river, could impose severe water restrictions.
California would voluntarily cut water deliveries if reservoir levels keep falling at the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead…
Cuts will most affect farmers in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project will stop storage and replenishment operations and cut water for agricultural use by about 15%. The agency gets more than half of Arizona’s entitlement of water from the Colorado River…
The drought contingency plan is a voluntary agreement to use less water than users are allowed, and its success is measured at the surface level of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas.
The agreements are designed to prevent a more drastic drought-shortage declaration under a 2007 pact that would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation and reduce Nevada’s share by 4.3 percent. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes.
California would reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent.
Due to a relatively wet winter, Lake Mead is now 40% full and Lake Powell, an upstream reservoir, is at 53% capacity, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said. A year ago, Lake Powell was 43% full, and Lake Mead was at 38%…
Water managers have called the last 20 dry years a drought, but climate researchers warn the river will continue to carry less water in coming years.
“Respected climate scientists have conservatively estimated declines in river flows of 20% by the middle of the 21st century and 35% by the end of the century,” researchers Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School and John Fleck of the University of New Mexico wrote in a study released in November.
The report refers to a “structural deficit” under which states and Mexico are promised more water than the river usually carries and encourages the seven states to clarify rules for handling future shortages.
One proposal…a diversion to run more water to farms in the Cliff-Gila Valley, has persisted to this year, and the deadline for its review by the Bureau of Reclamation is looming. Opponents argue the diversion will reduce the Gila from a trickle to a dry streambed, as it is in Arizona, where Phoenix and Tucson siphon so much water the Gila runs dry for nearly 300 miles. But there’s staying power to the notion that with a diversion will come more opportunity, more investors, more entrepreneurs, more business — plus more security in the face of climate change.
After all, arid Western cities and towns need more water. And diversion boosters say the water can be stored and utilized without significantly compromising river ecology. Plus, once that unencumbered New Mexico Gila water crosses the state border, Arizona uses it up anyway. Might as well get your fair share.
Both sides come back to the same point: This work is about what to leave the next generation. Those fighting for a free-flowing Gila, though, are doing so, for the first time in decades, without Salmon, who died in March at age 73 after a bout of pneumonia. His death came at a moment when it seemed the combined forces of Gila advocates’ work and a shifting political climate would put an end, at last, to the battle that he fought for half a lifetime. What happens this year could secure the fate of the river as forever wild, or forever changed. It’s a choice about what the next generation will need most: more water, or more wild…
The Gila River pours from its namesake wilderness area, its path dictated by rock walls before it fans out over polished stones where the canyons relent. It threads downed trees and churns past hot springs. Nothing out here competes with the moon and stars, so the Milky Way runs its own strong current across the night sky.
Hike the surrounding plateaus covered in pine trunks blackened by wildfires and knots of pinyon and juniper, and the river is invisible. “The one thing about the Gila is that you can’t really see it until you’re on it,” said Cherie Salmon, Dutch’s widow. “Once you get down in the canyons, you get the real flavor of it, and it’s those very canyons where, if you dam a river, they’re gone.”
In 1968, the bill that authorized the Central Arizona Project, which today funnels Colorado River water to Phoenix and surrounding areas, also permitted New Mexico to pull 18,000 acre-feet of Gila water. The first proposal was the Hooker Dam, which was to sit just inside the Gila National Forest boundary and would have backed up the river into the Gila Wilderness. Conservationists were aghast at the idea of the country’s first wilderness area, set aside in 1924, being violated with a reservoir. They were offered a string of buoys across the water to mark the wilderness boundary so motorboats wouldn’t cross it. People were unappeased. The dam idea languished another 14 years, then died.
But the bill authorizing it allowed for the Hooker “or suitable alternative.” “That ‘suitable alternative’ language was really critical, and haunts us to this day,” Schulke said. Next up, in the 1980s, was the Connor Dam proposal to pour concrete 20 miles downstream, in Middle Box Canyon.
The impact of a dam can be difficult to comprehend. So while Connor was still being debated (some locals, Salmon included, spelled it “Conner”), Salmon packed up and started for the headwaters of the Gila River, beginning a 200-mile journey from its highest tributaries and ending in Arizona. At some point, he swapped his hiking boots for a canoe, and added to the load both his dog Rojo and a nameless tomcat, who’d been water-tested when Salmon plunged the cat into a reservoir and raced him back to shore…
On a Tuesday in early September, blue jeans, button-up shirts, and cowboy boots abounded at the Grant County Administration Center in Silver City. The occasion was a meeting of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, the organization working to secure the additional Gila water allocated to the state in the 1968 Central Arizona Project legislation. Two people stood for the public comment period that kicks off the meeting, both voicing objections to the money being spent on a diversion when it could be funneled to projects that improve water efficiency and conservation.
Entity chair Darr Shannon had a simple counter: “If we’re not allowed to divert some of this water, then Arizona continues to get it all, and they become wealthier and wealthier as time goes by.”
The current framework stems from the federal 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, which for the first time allocated money for any diversion or storage project to serve the 60,000 people in four rural counties in southwestern New Mexico. It also adjusted New Mexico’s share to 14,000 acre-feet of water (if downstream commitments to the Gila River Indian Community are met), a figure lower than the original 1968 allocation, but still a significant increase to what farmers are currently able to funnel off the river for irrigation via homemade dams. The state was promised $100 million from the federal government — two-thirds of it for water conservation projects, and one-third for the construction of a diversion.
Since New Mexico was first allocated its share of Gila water in 1968, some 900,000 acre-feet of water entitled to southwest New Mexico has run downstream to Arizona, Vance Lee, vice chair of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, told the state legislative finance committee last September.
“At a time when other regions of the state are struggling to get enough water to meet their needs and in consideration of potential future needs of water in our arid southwest corner of the state, it only takes a little common sense to realize that, if we have the available water and we have the funds to develop it, that we keep every legally available drop of water in New Mexico,” the bullet points of Lee’s comments to the state finance committee read. (Multiple members of New Mexico CAP entity, including executive director Anthony Gutierrez, declined requests for an interview.)
Roughly $14 million of the $66 million the feds initially allocated for water conservation projects has been spent on planning the diversion. If New Mexico were freed from pursuing a diversion, the rest of that money could be spent on other water conservation projects to serve broader swaths of the region, rather than just the cluster of farmers near the river. But in that case, the state would forgo the $34 million originally earmarked for diversion construction.
Per the 2004 legislation, the Bureau of Reclamation must sign off on a diversion plan by the end of 2019, but the Entity’s legal counsel, Pete Domenici, Jr. — whose father ushered the Arizona Water Settlements Act as a U.S. senator for New Mexico — has asked Reclamation for an extension. As late as July, in the midst of the environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the plan was still shifting, shedding storage ponds and small dams.
“My opinion is, we’ve got to have control of our own destiny, and control of the water,” said Joe Runyan, who serves on the CAP Entity and runs a farm at the end of one of the ditches the diversion would feed. Then, he said, “when we go to the table with the rest of the people on the Colorado River, we’ve got a little leverage.”
If New Mexico had access to more water, maybe that would bring growth to this sleepy valley, the thinking of diversion proponents goes. And, while the first 4,000 acre-feet diverted from the river would go to farmers, the remaining 10,000 could go to municipalities or industry.
“I just think it’s a pretty good idea,” Runyan said of the diversion. “To me it would be totally irresponsible to deny the future generation in New Mexico access to that 14,000 acre-feet.”
Look southwest from a promontory at the edge of the Mogollon Mountains, and the Gila River lays down a dense ribbon of cottonwoods, their emerald color bleeding into the surrounding irrigated fields and pastures spotted with cattle, horses, and, occasionally, goats. That shade fades out to tan hills knotted with mesquite, pinyon, and yucca topped with towering blossoms. The river supplies agricultural fields, the lifeblood for small farming communities that don’t seem to have a tighter hold on the place than by their fingernails. The towns of Cliff and Gila consist of a few loosely clustered houses, a gift shop, a post office, and a café…
I was observing this scene with Schulke and Allyson Siwik, the Gila Conservation Coalition’s executive director. The pair donned broad-brimmed hats and lightweight, pale, long-sleeved shirts — standard-issue defense against the desert sun — and narrated the landscape. On the far horizon, where the Gila River drops into the Middle Box, is where the Connor Dam would have flooded habitat for some 300 species of birds on a list of boggling biodiversity where the mountains meet desert. The ditches through the floodplain are rimmed in green, a corridor of habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo. Cuckoos spend winter in Central or South America, but have such fidelity to their nest sites that a single pair was tracked returning to the same tree by the river in repeat years. Where the river flattens and slows into riffles, loach minnow like to tuck in. The Gila trout seeks out the bubblier, faster moving sections.
“This area is the only place in the Lower Colorado River Basin that still has its full complement of native fish,” Siwik said.
Some of the river’s bends, even from miles away, are visibly dry. That’s in part because the monsoon that typically refills it in the mid-summer months has been absent, but also because of “push-up” dams farmers create by bulldozing small earthen walls in the river. The proposed diversion would replace these mud and rock dams, which the river eventually breaks down, with concrete, and take from one spot four times as much water as what’s currently withdrawn in three push-up dams. Taking more water from one place, Schulke and Siwik worry, would increase both the length of dry stretches and their duration, which could devastate aquatic and riparian species and the rest of an ecosystem that relies on flooding rivers to recharge nutrients and groundwater and sprout seeds.
Looking upstream from that same ridge, the Gila River vanishes into peaks where ponderosas shade clusters of lupine and penstemon. Up there, the Gila’s no placid irrigator — it’s a wild mountain river whose rapids form a 40-mile classic stretch of whitewater. That’s if you can catch it; some years, the river is runnable by raft, kayak, or canoe for just a few days during spring snowmelt, then maybe again in late summer or early fall if the monsoon comes. Search and rescue crews are routinely called by stranded hikers who underestimate the swiftness and depth of the water, the steepness of the cliffs around it, and the remoteness of their undertakings in a national forest that covers 3.3 million acres, 792,584 of which are federally designated wilderness…
With the canyons safe from a dam, the fight now is less about the landscape and more about the water itself. The cropland the diverted water would reach currently grows pasture grass, a low-cost, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance crop. Whether any farmers in the valley could afford to purchase water made available through the diversion, however, trends toward speculation. That’s in part because the water doesn’t come free and clear: For every acre-foot of Gila water New Mexico diverts, the state would have to pay Arizona to purchase a corresponding amount of Colorado River water.
With the water, though, might come entrepreneurs, people who want to build greenhouses and grow produce. Runyan, the farmer on the CAP Entity committee, said that among the 10 farmers on the Gila Farm Irrigation Association, he’s “heard from some members” that they would plant additional winter crops, including winter wheat, oats, peas, turnips or garlic.
But if farmers switch to high-value crops to cover the cost of more expensive water, those crops would rely on a constant supply of water, and former Interstate Stream Commission chair and career engineer Norman Gaume said that’s not a guarantee. During eight of the last 81 years, he said, there wouldn’t have been enough water in the Gila to divert. In short, he said, “the [environmental impact statement] says there’s dependable water, but there’s not.”
Climate change has already reduced winter snowpack that feeds this river, and research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, perhaps as early as mid-century, the Gila will cease to be a snowpack-fed river.
“The desert mountain areas of the Southwest are ground zero for climate change, and the Gila is evidence of that,” said Sinjin Eberle, communications director and executive producer with American Rivers, which named the Gila the most endangered river of 2019 due to the diversion proposal. “How I think about it is, do we have to dam and divert every river that we have, and do we have to dam and divert every tributary that we have, just because it happens to be wild? … The Gila is too valuable to continue slicing away at it.”
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced during her campaign last year she planned to abandon the diversion, and vetoed state funding for it. But the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity has enough federal funds to continue its work, and the state’s members of the Interstate Stream Commission have not yet moved to halt the diversion. If the diversion proceeds, Eberle said, it would be met with a legal challenge.
Just 37 percent of the 246 longest rivers in the world flow freely their entire length, and most of those are confined to the remote regions of the Arctic, Amazon, and Congo basins, according to research published earlier this year in Nature. Only 23 percent of those run without impediment all the way to the ocean…
In the western United States, a rare few show what a river can do when left to its own: the Yellowstone in Montana, the John Day in Oregon, all three forks of the Salmon in Idaho, and the Yampa in Colorado. The Yampa came perilously close to a dam during the 1950s. But still, on spring days after a snowy winter, you can paddle down the dam-moderated and appropriately emerald Green River into Echo Park, where the Yampa comes in strong, its surge seeming to shove the Green’s water back upstream. Progress slows to a drift as the muddy Yampa water appears like blossoms underneath the clearer Green’s flows.
What we are beginning to understand is that ecosystems work like tapestries, and that losing one river is like pulling at a thread. It can unravel the whole system, taking with it a curtain filled with birds, insects, fish, frogs, snakes, coatis, wolves, coyotes, and jaguars. That the native fish remain in the Gila river is testament to this particular weave holding, and that here, the systems still function largely as they have for thousands of years, which is rare enough to consider guarding well, or so goes the point Salmon and the advocates he mentored have long been making…
“[Aldo] Leopold,” he continued, “says wilderness is the raw material out of which we’ve hammered the artifact we call civilization, so to save a portion of that country is probably the most fundamentally conservative thing you can do. In other words, saving the Gila is a patriotic act.
The Gila River winds through many lands before and after it enters Arizona, including the territory of some Native American tribes that historically have relied on the water for their homes and their crops. One of those, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has thrown shade on any future New Mexico Unit diversion by virtue of their refusing to be a party to virtually any aspect of the project, or its affiliated agreements.
The 2004 federal Arizona Water Settlements Act was intended to address the fact that some communities — particularly Native American communities — had long been on the short end of the stick when it came to water rights. The Central Arizona Project, known as the CAP, is a major diversion of Colorado River water that began supplying water to Phoenix and Tucson in the late 1980s — but it is only an outsized example of diversions that impacted downstream communities in southern Arizona over the years.
Four New Mexico counties are also included in the settlement legislation: Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna. As a result, the New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project was created, making available millions of dollars from the settlement. Farmers and landowners in southwestern New Mexico banded together to form the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project aiming to spend that money.
Should the N.M. CAP Entity proceed with their plan to divert up to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila and San Francisco rivers, a rarely discussed sticking point lies ahead for the project. The AWSA that provides the money for the project includes by reference what is called the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement, or “CUFA,” a deal among the federal government and downstream users of the Gila River.
Before the N.M. CAP Entity could start diverting water — should the project come to fruition — there are requirements that it must satisfy, most of which revolve around the San Carlos Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on San Carlos Apache tribal land. Most of the water users in that area and downstream signed on to the CUFA in 2005 and 2006, and are therefore guaranteed exchange water, or “credits,” for lost water resulting from the diversion upstream.
“The CUFA is a complex document,” said Dominique Work, a lawyer with the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission. “One requirement is that New Mexico can’t start diverting water unless there is at least 30,000 acre-feet in the San Carlos Reservoir at the beginning of each year.”
Even when the reservoir has 30,000 acre-feet in it at the beginning of the year, sometimes the water quality is poor, which is also a sticking point. The 22 water users that signed on to the CUFA agreed to forgo the right to sue over water quality or quantity.
But in a glaring exception, the San Carlos Tribe did not sign on to the agreement. They have also refused to allow a pipeline — as part of the AWSA — to be built on their land.
“The pipeline would provide water from farmers in the Safford, Arizona, area,” as part of the water settlement, Work said. “The farmers were given $15 million in the AWSA to build that pipeline. They built it until they got to the land boundary of the tribe, and the tribe said, ‘You aren’t building that on our reservation.’ So there is a means to get the water — and that is a prerequisite.”
Since the tribe has both refused to complete the project and refused to sign the CUFA, it is debatable whether their water needs would be met by the half-built pipeline.
Work asserted that the “mechanism is satisfied” for getting the tribe the water it is due. But it appears that the tribe — which Entity Director Anthony Gutierrez points out “only get[s] 6,000 acre-feet of water per year from the reservoir” — apparently wants their water to come from the Gila River. And that raises water quality issues.
Stephanie Russo Baca, staff attorney at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center at the University of New Mexico School of Law, isn’t so certain that San Carlos wouldn’t have standing to sue. She interprets the AWSA as giving the tribe the right to litigate against the Entity and whoever else it feels is culpable for low water quality.
“The Arizona Water Settlements Act states that the United States — on behalf of the San Carlos Apache Tribe — or the tribe itself can assert any claim against any party, including any claim for water rights, injury to water rights, or injury to water quality,” she said. “Even though the San Carlos Apache Tribe is a non-signatory to the CUFA, this does not preclude them from asserting their rights.”
On July 2, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) entity that oversees projects using federal money in the New Mexico Unit Fund slashed several components from the proposed Gila River diversion. The cuts reduced the project’s price tag by about $83 million, but also the amount of water that could be diverted and used for irrigation.
It’s the latest in a decades-long saga of how federal money should be spent on water projects in the southwest corner of the state.
Joe Runyan is the CAP entity representative from the Gila Farm Irrigation Association in the Cliff-Gila Valley. He said the Gila diversion project had been “dramatically minimized” since its beginnings, making it cost-effective and beneficial to farmers and other water users in the region.
“It would be irresponsible for us not to give future generations access to this water,” Runyan said. “We should be at the table when it comes to accessing Colorado River water. The next generation will be glad we did.”
Gila diversion supporters say the diversion project will improve regional agriculture and provide a sustainable water supply for rural areas during drought. But years of back-and-forth between the CAP entity, the Interstate Stream Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation – and a looming federal deadline – have prevented much progress toward that goal.
Opponents argue the diversion is expensive and will benefit only a few irrigators at great detriment to the region’s environment.
“There’s no hope of this project on its merits, but unfortunately we live in a time when merits don’t always matter,” [Norman] Gaume said at a New Mexico Wildlife Federation lecture in Albuquerque this past week. “The whole thing is upside down. It’s just a mess, and a shame.”
New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who are all Democrats, oppose the diversion.
Commission members are appointed by the governor. Lujan Grisham hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make an appointment, but in April she did veto $1.7 million in funding requested by the ISC for Gila diversion planning and design. She also promised to end the project in her October 2018 water plan published during her campaign.
Gaume said if Lujan Grisham appoints a new Interstate Stream Commission, the Gila diversion will likely die, and the federal funds would still be available for smaller water conservation projects. But at this point, the ISC and CAP are moving forward with a business plan…
“The heart of this proposed action (the Gila diversion) is to use and preserve water for New Mexico that otherwise would be lost to Arizona, and has been for 50 years,” said CAP lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. “Our response to public officials who speak against this will suggest that they are doing something unprecedented by letting water go to a neighboring state.”
An economic analysis prepared by a federal consultant for Reclamation as part of the June draft environmental impact statement says the diverted water could support high-value, “thirsty” crops for farmers.
Those crops include lavender, hemp, potatoes, pecans and grapes. Many farmers in the region currently grow lower-value crops like alfalfa and cotton.
Revenue from the new crops might offset the estimated high price for farmers to access the diverted water. But the latest project changes won’t be able to be divert and store as much water, so that original crop revenue estimate likely won’t be as high.
Four project sites on the Gila could divert as much as 14,000 acre-feet (4.6 billion gallons) annually to four counties in southwest New Mexico: Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo. That’s enough water to supply about 57,000 Albuquerque homes in a year…
Fourteen native fish species live in the Gila River basin, including the endangered Gila trout. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher bird, loach minnow and the northern Mexican garter snake also call the river home…
The Interstate Stream Commission will visit proposed Gila diversion sites in August.
This is Laura Paskus’ final article for The New Mexico Political Report:
Plans for the Gila River diversion have changed. Again.
At a meeting in Silver City on July 2, members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity voted to scale back development plans on the Gila River and one of its tributaries in southwestern New Mexico.
The vote took place following completion of a preliminary draft environmental impact statement (PDEIS) about the group’s plans in the Cliff-Gila Valley, on the San Francisco River and in Virden, a town in Hidalgo County near the Arizona border.
As proposed by the CAP Entity, the waters of the Gila River would be diverted, about three-and-a-half miles downstream from where the river runs out of the Gila Wilderness, via a 155-foot concrete weir wall. The project would also replace and repair existing ditches in the Cliff-Gila Valley, build storage ponds in the valley and in Winn Canyon, and create facilities for aquifer storage and recovery.
The proposal also called for storage ponds in Virden. And on the San Francisco River, the CAP Entity planned to replace existing diversions with a new weir and build an earthen embankment dam and reservoir in Weedy Canyon, west of Highway 180 between Reserve and Alma.
Altogether, along with improvements to existing ditches, the project would have cost more than $120 million to build.
Now, many of those components are off the table.
According to Jeff Riley, manager of the engineering division at the Phoenix area office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the CAP Entity’s attorney, Pete Domenici, Jr. worked up a modified alternative to fit within the budget of the federal construction subsidy, which is about $56 million.
Riley explained that the modified proposal still includes a Gila River diversion and some of the storage ponds, but will leave out Winn Canyon storage and the aquifer storage and recovery components. It also excludes the Weedy Canyon dam and storage on the San Francisco. The earlier plans for Virden remain.
“What this accomplished, was a project where all three areas”—the Cliff-Gila Valley, Virden and the San Francisco River—“still had pieces intact, but the cost would fall to about $50 million in today’s dollars,” said Riley…
Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:
#1: GILA RIVER, NEW MEXICO
Threat: Water Diversion, Climate Change
Flowing out of the nation’s first wilderness area, the Gila River supports outstanding examples of southwestern riparian forest, cold-water fisheries and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The Gila River provides significant economic value to the region, with superb opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based specialty travel and wilderness experiences. It is also important to indigenous peoples who have lived in southwestern New Mexico for thousands of years. Many cultural sites are found along the Gila River and throughout its watershed. Furthermore, the Hispanic community has a culture, heritage and way of life tied to the river and forest, where generations continue to hunt, fish, hike and enjoy family time together.
After more than a decade of planning and more than $15 million spent, a substantial diversion project is in the last year of review under the National Environmental Policy Act. A draft environmental impact statement is expected in April 2019 with a record of decision by the end of 2019. Despite the projected high costs, severe delays in schedule and feasibility issues with multiple iterations of the diversion proposal, this project continues to move forward with likely support from the Trump administration.
In this critical year, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham can eliminate the threat to the Gila River by withdrawing the project from the Arizona Water Settlements Act process and instead spend available AWSA funding on non-diversion projects to meet the water needs of communities throughout southwest New Mexico. Governor Lujan Grisham has pledged to end work on the diversion by using these funds more efficiently on other projects and to ensure that the Gila River is protected by federal law. We urge her to fulfill this promise, saving taxpayers and water users money, providing direct benefits for area farmers and businesses and protecting the Gila River for future generations.
American Rivers appreciates the collaboration and efforts of our partners:
Gila Conservation Coalition
Center for Biological Diversity
Upper Gila Watershed Alliance
One threat down one to go
From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):
Last week, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the last of the bills from the 2019 legislative session, she line-item vetoed $1.698 million in New Mexico Unit funding for the Gila River diversion.
Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s director of communications, said Lujan Grisham has been clear about her views on the diversion project. He added that the administration’s opposition to it “does not come down to one veto or one source of funds but rather the policies that will be spearheaded by the OSE and ISC.” The Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission are the state’s two water agencies.
Since January 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has deposited more than $60 million into New Mexico’s coffers for the project. Already, about $15 million of that money has already been spent (plus about another $2 million in state money), even though plans for the project have yet to be solidified and no one has yet identified buyers for the water, which would cost about $450 per acre foot. (And those contracts would need to be approved by both the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the U.S. Department of the Interior.)
After the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted in 2014 to build the diversion, the state created the New Mexico Central Arizona Project. Made up of representatives of local irrigation districts, counties and towns, the entity oversees its construction, maintenance and operation. To receive the full federal subsidy for the project, the entity is supposed to have completed environmental studies and received approval from the secretary of the Interior Department by the end of 2019. But despite the millions of dollars spent, the project is about 18 months behind schedule.
All eyes are on Arizona and California with Brenda Burman’s extended deadline coming up on Monday. They are dealing with the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which really should be a plan to address the declining supply and increasing demand that causes an annual deficit. (H/T Eric Kuhn over at Inkstain.
Water poured into an artificial wetland next to the Gila River near Sacaton as Arizona’s leading proponents of a Colorado River drought plan celebrated the state’s progress in moving toward a deal.
Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community touted the restoration project as an example of putting water back into a river that has was sucked dry over the years, and a symbolic step in promoting sustainable water management in the state. The inauguration ceremony on the reservation featured traditional singing by men and boys who shook gourd rattles in unison.
Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said the community, which has agreed to contribute water under the proposed Colorado River deal, is playing a vital role in helping to finish the three-state Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP.
“This is very important and very historic,” Lewis told the audience of community members, politicians and water managers. “It goes beyond politics. It goes to the benefit and the future sustainability and existence of all of us here.”
Unresolved issues remain
Yet even as Arizona’s top water officials expressed optimism about finishing the drought agreement after months of difficult negotiations, they also voiced concerns that unresolved issues in California still could upend the entire deal.
More than 250 miles to the west in California’s Imperial Valley, leaders of the irrigation district that controls the largest share of Colorado River water were still discussing a key condition of their participation. Imperial Irrigation District officials announced at a meeting on Friday afternoon that the federal Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to their condition that the drought package include linkage to funding for the Salton Sea.
They said federal officials will write a strong letter of support backing IID’s requests for $200 million in Farm Bill funding for wetlands projects around the shrinking sea. The projects are aimed at keeping down dust along the shorelines and salvaging deteriorating habitat for fish and birds.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, the U.S. solicitor and staff are finalizing a letter stating that “they consider the restoration of the Salton Sea is a critical ingredient of the drought contingency plans and cannot be ignored, and they stand prepared to help the IID with the Department of Agriculture to try to get funding in whatever way possible,” said IID attorney Charles Dumars.
He cautioned that it was “a building block, nothing more,” but said it was a big one that could be used to persuade Agriculture Department officials to allocate funds for the receding lake…
The board also voted unanimously to oppose a supposed “white knight” offer by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, to provide IID’s portion of water to be kept in Lake Mead if the agency doesn’t sign on to the drought plan.
Several board members and people in the audience chided the Los Angeles-based agency for trying to interfere in their process, saying it was ignoring the public-health issues at the Salton Sea created by the withdrawal of Colorado River water…
IID officials also discussed a timeline that Burman and her staff presented at a recent meeting in Las Vegas. The aim, Martinez said, is to have agreements adopted by all parties…in Phoenix on March 14 or 15 to sign a joint letter to Congress endorsing the plan…
Arizona working to wrap up its part
The Gila River Indian Community’s involvement is key because the community is entitled to about a fourth of the water that passes through the Central Arizona Project, and it has offered to kick in some water to make the drought agreement work.
Arizona’s plan for divvying up the water cutbacks involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as compensation payments for those that contribute water. Those payments are to be covered with more than $100 million from the state and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which manages the CAP Canal. Much of the money would go toward paying for water from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community…
Gov. Ducey signed a package of legislation on Jan. 31 endorsing the Drought Contingency Plan. Arizona still needs to finish a list of internal water agreements to make the state’s piece of the deal work.
State officials have presented a list of a dozen remaining agreements, two of which would require the approval of the Gila River Indian Community. But Cooke said not all the agreements need to be signed for the three-state deal to move forward.
Cooke said he’s focused most of all on finishing a framework agreement for Arizona focusing on “intentionally created surplus,” a term for unused water that is stored in Lake Mead.
Here’s the release from the Gila River Indian Community (June M. Shorthair):
Today, elected officials of the Gila River Indian Community, including the Governor, Lt. Governor and several Council members, determined that the Community had received sufficient assurances that HB 2476 was “dead” and that the Community could re-engage in the effort to finalize the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan Implementation Plan. Community elected officials came to this determination after meetings with Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, and House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and Senator Lisa Otondo.
Due to unjustified attacks on the Community through the Arizona legislative process in the form of HB 2476, earlier this week the Community informed the Chairs of the Arizona DCP Steering Committee that if the Arizona legislature continued its consideration of HB 2476, the Community would have no choice but to withdraw from the Arizona Drought Contingency Implementation Plan altogether. Based on the assurances received at today’s meetings, especially those from Speaker Pro Tem Shope, the Community officials determined that HB 2476 is dead and as a result that the Community is able to move forward with the Arizona DCP Implementation Plan despite this unwarranted attack on the Community.
Speaking for the Community, Governor Stephen R. Lewis stated, “On behalf of the Community, I want to thank Rep. Shope and Rep. Fernandez for making the effort to come and speak with us directly about this very troubling attack on our Community. They listened carefully to our concerns, and Rep. Shope assured us he would take them back to the Legislature to help others understand why we perceived this legislation as highly inappropriate and an attack on our Community. He also provided us with very solid assurances that this legislation is truly dead and that there would be no further consideration of it, as did Rep. Fernandez. Their word on this is what we need to confirm this legislation is truly not moving forward and I am pleased that the Community will be able to rejoin the State’s efforts to get DCP over the finish line.”
Rep. Shope said, “As one of the members representing the Community, and a member of House leadership, I believed it was essential to come and meet with Community leaders and hear their concerns. I was pleased to provide them with the assurances that I have received from the Speaker, and my own, which I believe make clear that this bill is truly dead and will not be raised again this legislative session”
Rep. Fernandez stated, “I completely understand why the Community would have viewed this bill as the attack that it was. It is not only bad policy, but an abuse of our legislative process, and I was pleased to commit to the Community’s leaders the support of my caucus in fighting this legislation if it ever is brought back up, which I do not think will happen.”
Senator Otondo confirmed the Senate Democratic Caucus position in opposition to the bill, and sympathized with the Community, stating “I completely understand why the Community and its members would be outraged at this kind of unwarranted attack. From what I know, far from being the bad actor that they were portrayed to be, they are actually the wronged party. While most of the farmers in the Upper Valley are doing all they can to work with Community and the Community is cooperating with them, there is a small group that simply won’t pay attention to the law of the Gila River. I think the Community is fully within its rights to try to get them to comply with the law.”
Governor Lewis concluded, “This meeting was a critical turning point in Arizona’s DCP and Rep. Shope and Rep. Fernandez, and Sen. Otondo, all deserve great credit for taking this important step to reach out to us and hear our concerns and assure us of their continued support. It is this kind of leadership that will help us all move DCP over the finish line. This was an unfortunate chapter in this historic effort, but we will now do all we can to put this in the rear view mirror, and move forward together.”
The purpose of HB 2476 is ostensibly to repeal a cardinal principal of Arizona water law, the so-called “use it or lose it” rule codified in the State’s very first water code as a rule of forfeiture. Under the forfeiture statute any water right holder who does not use his water rights for an uninterrupted period of five years, without a legitimate excuse specified in the statute, can be found to have forfeited that right. This “use it or lose it” principle is an essential element of the water codes across the arid West, and appears in 16 different state water codes in almost the same form. If HB 2476 were enacted, Arizona would become the first and only state in the West to repeal such a forfeiture statute.
On February 19, 2019, a hearing was held on HB 2476. While the hearing was supposed to focus on the forfeiture statute and its effect on certain water users, the testimony and questions instead focused on the Community’s actions in federal district court to legitimately enforce its settlement and to protect its water rights under its settlement. Most of the witnesses who testified actually stated in open testimony that they were concerned for their “hot” land farming practices, a term that refers to a practice of illegally using water from the Gila River, water to which the Community has a clear and superior right. The misstatements made during the testimony and questions posed made it very clear that this hearing was intended to be a form of “show trial” for the Community, whose real purpose could only have been to somehow intimidate the Community into not enforcing its rights. At the end of the hearing, the proponent of HB 2476 asked that his bill be “held” so that he could review its legality and perhaps refine it so it could perhaps be raised again at a future time, leaving the Community with no clear indication as to whether the bill would move forward or not.
This decision to hold HB 2476 put the Community in an untenable position, as it could not proceed with its participation with DCP until this issue was clearly put to rest. Today’s meetings provided the Community with an opportunity to discuss directly with key members of the Arizona Legislature whether this legislation is for all intents and purposes “dead” for this session. In the meeting with the Rep. Shope, as a member of House leadership he was able to convey to Community tribal leadership that Speaker Bowers had assured Rep. Shope that the Speaker did not intend to take any further action to move HB 2476 forward this session. In addition Rep. Shope also assured Community leaders that even if Speaker Bowers might decide to move the legislation forward, Rep. Shope would himself vote against it on the floor. During the meeting, Community leaders made clear why they felt HB 2476 was a purposeful attack on the Community and how the hearing had completely misrepresented the Community’s legitimate actions and efforts to enforce its water settlement rights,. Rep. Shope offered to take these concerns back to the legislature to help educate other members on this issue.
In a separate meeting with the Democratic House Minority Leader, Rep. Charlotte Fernandez, and with Sen. Lisa Otondo, they both reiterated their caucuses’ support for the Community in its opposition to this unjustified attack in the form of legislation.
In a separate decision, Community leaders authorized its water team to continue its efforts to protect the Community’s water settlement and to enforce the Community’s rights as and when necessary.
A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water that the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.
But Lewis said he learned that House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.
“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.
And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.
“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.
Bowers declined to comment on the latest development.
But an aide to the speaker said that, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.
That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.
“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.
And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.
“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’ ”
Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made approval of the DCP a key goal, sidestepped questions about the new hurdle, with press aide Patrick Ptak saying only that his boss is focused on working with other states to get Congress to approve necessary changes in federal law.
The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476, concerns at what point people who had one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.
Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.
MARICOPA — In satellite images, the farm fields in central Arizona stand out like an emerald green quilt draped across the desert landscape.
Seeing it from the ground level, the fields of alfalfa, corn and wheat are interspersed with the furrows of freshly plowed fields. After the cotton harvest, stray fluffy bolls lie scattered on the ground like patches of snow.
A large share of the water that flows to these fields comes from the Colorado River, and the supply of water is about to decrease dramatically.
Under Arizona’s plan for coping with drought, farmers who’ve received Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal for more than three decades now expect to see their allotment slashed more than 60 percent, from 275,000 acre-feet to 105,000 acre-feet per year for the first three years of a shortage. After that, their supply of Colorado River water will be cut off and they plan to rely solely on pumping groundwater from wells.
The plan to shut off deliveries of surface water to farms in Pinal County shows how the demands of agriculture are starting to collide like never before with water scarcity and climate change in the Southwest. The strategy of turning to groundwater pumping will test the limits of Arizona’s regulatory system for its desert aquifers, which targets some areas for pumping restrictions and leaves others with looser rules or no regulation at all.
In Pinal County, which falls under these groundwater rules, the return to a total reliance on wells reflects a major turning point and raises the possibility that this part of Arizona could again sink into a pattern of falling groundwater levels — just as it did decades ago, before the arrival of Colorado River water…
With the imported supply of water now about to go away, the farmers in the area are bracing for changes that they see approaching much more rapidly than they had anticipated. A first-ever shortage on the Colorado River could be declared starting next year. When the flow of water through the CAP canal decreases, no other group of people will feel the direct effects as acutely as the growers and laborers who run the farms in Pinal County…
“As I lose water, I will fallow land,” Thelander said as he drove his pickup past fields of cotton and alfalfa. “We’re going to have to lay off employees.”
Drought plan maps out new future
The Colorado River irrigates more than 5 million acres of farmlands and supplies about 40 million people in cities from Denver to Los Angeles.
Nineteen years of drought and chronic overuse, combined with the worsening effects of climate change, have pushed the levels of the river’s reservoirs lower and lower. Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, now sits just 40 percent full and approaching a shortage.
Under the proposed Drought Contingency Plan for the river’s lower basin, Arizona would join with California and Nevada to take less water out of Lake Mead in an effort to prevent it from falling to disastrously low levels.
During the Legislature’s discussions of Arizona’s piece of the drought deal, the plan to provide state funding to Pinal irrigation districts prompted debate. There also was debate about how the agriculture economy will be affected.
The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which represents cities that supply water to more than half the state’s population, said in a Jan. 7 economic analysis that Pinal County agriculture represented about 0.2 percent of Arizona’s economy in 2016, and that about 11 percent of the county’s agriculture industry is at risk due to the water cutbacks under the Drought Contingency Plan.
While growers will have to shrink their crop irrigation by one-third on average, the association said, much of the county’s farming economy is based on dairies and beef production. It said feed for the cattle can be brought from outside Pinal County.
The county produces much of Arizona’s milk, and a large portion of the milk comes from Shamrock Farms. The dairy has about 12,000 cows…
Crop choices, groundwater use scrutinized
Given all the stresses on water supplies in the desert Southwest, the farmers in Pinal have faced questions about their choices of crops, their irrigation methods and their plan to rely on more groundwater pumping. Critics have asked whether it makes sense to continue growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert. They’ve also called for more investment in using water more efficiently on the farms.
Sandy Bahr, who leads the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, criticized the plan to use taxpayers’ money for new wells and other water infrastructure. She said this goes against decades of water policy in Arizona aimed at reducing the pressures on groundwater supplies, from the construction of the Central Arizona Project canal starting in the 1970s to the passage of the state’s landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980.
“After decades of trying to limit groundwater pumping, we see kind of this test of the Groundwater Management Act,” Bahr said. She said the plan approved by the Legislature will now promote more groundwater pumping and over-exploitation of aquifers.
If that’s going to be allowed, she asked, then shouldn’t the landowners in Pinal “have to pay for it themselves?”
Bahr said she’s concerned that the plan doesn’t involve looking at how different types of crops could help in using less water.
“Instead, almost every facet of what the Legislature passed is tied to getting water to these Pinal County interests,” she said.
Some conservationists and lawmakers have also raised questions about how efficiently water is being used on Pinal’s farms, and what steps could be taken to promote the installation of more water-saving irrigation systems.
Researchers who’ve looked at ways of improving irrigation methods have found big potential for saving water on farms, which use more than 70 percent of the water supply across the Colorado River basin. When researchers with the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water think tank, examined water use along the Colorado River in a 2013 study, they found that irrigating alfalfa more efficiently (through a practice known as “regulated deficit irrigation”) could save nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year.
They also estimated that replacing about 10 percent of the alfalfa with cotton or wheat across the river basin could save about 250,000 acre-feet per year. That’s nearly half of the total water cutbacks that Arizona will have to face under the first year of a shortage.
Thelander said people often ask him about his choices of crops.
“I always get the question: Why don’t you farm crops that are more water-efficient?” he said. “We spend a tremendous amount of money on water. And if I could make money farming low-water use crops, I would do that. There’s already a big carrot there for us to do that.”
One example is barley, which he said is one of the lowest water-use crops that can be grown in the area.
“But if we farm barley, we lose a tremendous amount of money,” Thelander said. “We’re always looking for lower water-use crops that we can make a profit on.”
How Pinal got Colorado River water
In the 1930s, growers in Pinal County dug wells and began irrigating farms with groundwater. The farms expanded through the 1950s and kept relying on wells.
The agriculture investors in the ’50s and ’60s included the actor John Wayne, who bought land to grow cotton and raise cattle, and also invested in building a feedlot.
When construction began on the CAP Canal in 1973, the project promised to help sustain the farms in central Arizona while allowing them to draw less from the aquifers.
After decades of heavy pumping in Pinal County, the water tables had fallen dramatically. The ground sank in places as the aquifers were depleted. The overpumping and the sinking ground left lasting symptoms: In several areas around the region, gaping fissures opened up in the earth.
In 1985, construction began on a canal system that would run from the main CAP canal to the fields in Pinal’s Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. The district paid for the nearly $100 million canal system, issuing bonds and financing 80 percent of the cost with zero-interest loans from the federal government.
The first water deliveries flowed to farms in 1987, and the system was finished in 1989. It included the 56-mile Santa Rosa Canal, as well as the 17-mile East Main Canal and 130 miles of lateral canals. Through these arteries, the farms gained access to Colorado River water.
Brian Betcher helped design the project while working for a consulting firm in the early 1980s, and in 1988 he joined the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District as its engineer.
Under Arizona’s groundwater law, the farmlands were within the Pinal “active management area” and the regulatory system required that the irrigated areas not expand with the arrival of imported water.
“For every acre-foot of Colorado River water that was received, we had to reduce groundwater pumping by the same amount,” said Betcher, who is now the district’s general manager.
In 1989, the district assumed control of all the farms’ wells, acquiring them from the landowners with 40-year leases. The district has since delivered growers a mix of groundwater and Colorado River water.
While one of the reasons for building the CAP Canal was to help wean agriculture from groundwater, it was also to supply cities. And the Pinal farmers knew they were at the bottom of the list in the priority system.
As they began to irrigate with Colorado River water, Betcher said, the farmers were aware that the suburbs would continue to expand into farming areas and would have the highest priority for water.
“It was well-known that there would be a decreasing supply over time,” Betcher said. “It was pretty well understood that over time, the higher priority users, which were cities and industry, would grow into their allocations. And that would leave less water for agriculture.”
The irrigation districts’ initial contracts stipulated deliveries of Colorado River water through 2042. The way the system worked throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Orme said, the districts were able to use the available water that remained after cities and Native American tribes had taken their allotments.
The contracts didn’t list specific quantities of water but rather percentages dividing what was left among the irrigation districts. So, exactly how much water would be available for agriculture in any year was never certain.
In the early 2000s, efforts to settle several water disputes were underway in Arizona. Among those issues: Leaders of the Gila River Indian Community were seeking to settle their longstanding water-rights claims; Arizona officials were in a dispute with the federal government over the repayment costs for the construction of the CAP canal; and the Pinal irrigation districts were in a disagreement with CAP officials over how much they were being charged for water.
When the parties reached the landmark 2004 settlement, the farmers agreed to take a step down in the water priority system. Some of the water that they had been using went to tribes and cities. In exchange, the farmers would get water for about a third of the price that CAP had proposed to charge.
At the time, Lake Mead was nearly full and the farmers felt confident they’d have an assured supply of water until 2030. Their group of water users, who took water from what was called the Agricultural Pool, faced a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030.
But the growers and their irrigation districts saw the deal as beneficial because, as Orme put it, “an affordable 25-year water supply is better than a 40-year unaffordable water supply.”
As Colorado River water has continued to flow to farms, it has allowed groundwater levels to stabilize and recover somewhat. In some areas, Betcher said, the water table has risen significantly.
Over the years, the city of Maricopa has grown and replaced some of the farmland in Pinal. Around Casa Grande, new subdivisions have also sprung up.
Even after losing some farmlands to development, the Maricopa-Stanfield district still has about 60,000 irrigated acres.
This year, the district plans to deliver 43 percent of its water from the CAP canal and get the remaining 57 percent from groundwater pumping. Even before the drought deal, the area has been gradually relying more on wells. Betcher said the district has a program to rehabilitate old wells and has added to its groundwater pumping capacity during the past decade.
Of the $50 million sought by irrigation districts in central Arizona, about $15 million would go to Betcher’s district. The money will go toward drilling new wells and building pipelines to carry the groundwater to the canal system.
Betcher said wells in the district are pumping water from 500-600 feet underground.
When the new wells go online, they will likely pump down the water table again. Just how quickly the aquifer may decline isn’t clear. Together with another irrigation district, Maricopa-Stanfield is paying a consultant to prepare a study evaluating the groundwater supply…
The farmers still could return to their current schedule of water deliveries, Orme said, under a scenario in which heavy snow and rain ends the 19-year drought and sends Lake Mead rebounding.
But even with the snowpack in the river’s upper basin about average so far this winter, a shortage still looks likely. And federal water managers have been pressing for the states to finish the Drought Contingency Plan. It’s unclear whether that will happen before a March 4 deadline set by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
“The world will be moving away from fossil fuel production,” David Gutzler, a professor at the University of New Mexico and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told members of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Gutzler went on to paint a stark picture of New Mexico in a changing climate.
The mountains outside Albuquerque will look like the mountains outside El Paso by the end of the century if current trends continue, he said.
There will not be any snowpack in the mountains above Santa Fe by the end of the century, Gutzler added.
We have already seen more land burned by wildfires, partly because of changes in forest management and partly because of climate change, Gutzler said.
Water supply will be negatively affected in what is already an arid state, he said.
“It’s real. It’s happening. We see it in the data. … This is not hypothetical in any way. This is real and we would be foolish to ignore it,” Gutzler said.
The professor warned lawmakers that the state must get serious about greenhouse gas emissions now by expanding clean energy sources and mitigating the societal costs of moving away from fossil fuels.
That cost, though, will be a sticking point for Republicans. Many of them represent southeastern New Mexico and the Four Corners, where oil and mining are big industries.
Under the deal, the Gila River Indian Community would supply the district, often referred to as CAGRD, with up to 830,000 acre-feet of desperately needed water over the next 25 years, starting in 2020. The board of the Central Arizona Project, which governs CAGRD, approved the deal in a meeting at the beginning of November.
The deal would help ensure that developers in Arizona can continue to build well into the future…
“We believe our action today helps build momentum to have Arizona approve DCP and protect Lake Mead, but at the same time ensure that water supplies are available for an important sector of Arizona’s economy,” Gila River Indian Community Govenor Stephen Roe Lewis said in a statement Wednesday.
But, in a strategic move as DCP negotiations continue, Lewis has not yet signed the deal between the Gila River Indian Community and CAGRD.
That moment will have to wait until Arizona’s DCP is passed by the Arizona Legislature and signed by the state. In other words, if the DCP doesn’t happen, neither does the CAGRD deal.
Lewis alluded to this contingency in his statement Wednesday, as he explained how the negotiations for the CAGRD deal had proceeded in recent months.
“The Community had been very concerned that DCP might not happen and was re-examining whether these agreements were the best use of our water supplies in times of shortage,” he said. “As a result, we had been waiting to see whether DCP was a realistic possibility or whether we should wait and perhaps move in a different direction.”
In the contentious world of Arizona water politics, the CAGRD deal is closely linked with ongoing DCP discussions, in which Arizona water users are working out how they’ll distribute expected cuts in the state’s supply of Colorado River water…
Under the deal, Gila River Water Storage, a water-storage company formed jointly by the Gila River Indian Community and Salt River Project, will sell 445,375 acre-feet of long-term storage credits to CAGRD. An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons.
Long-term storage credits are crucial to CAGRD, an entity that helps developers meet requirements under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act to show that their water supply is secure for at least the next 100 years. If developers don’t have 100 years’ worth of water wherever they’re developing, they can enroll in CAGRD and gain access to this future supply.
They can do this because of long-term storage credits. Water users earn these credits when they store water underground for more than a year. The credits, which can be transferred, give whoever holds them the right to recover that water in the future.
Without the deal with the Gila River Indian Community, if a drought were declared on the Colorado River, CAGRD’s supply of long-term storage credits for Phoenix is project to hit a shortage in the year 2028 and to run out completely by 2030.
With the deal, CAGRD would have enough water to meet all of its obligations, even if there is a shortage on the Colorado River. Based on current environmental conditions, the federal Bureau of Reclamation projects that a shortage has a 57 percent chance of occurring in the year 2020.
The deal also creates a way for the Gila River Indian Community and CAGRD to swap supplies of water stored underground with surface water from the Colorado River. The infrastructure for that exchange would cost $2.5 million. The deal allows CAGRD to lease Colorado River water from the Gila River Indian Community.
The Central Arizona Project plans to pay for this plan by increasing the cost of water deliveries in Phoenix and potentially in Tucson.
Starting in 2020, rates would increase 11 to 15 percent over the next two or three years. That translates to a total average increase of $3.11 per month, per home, by the end of the third year. After that, the impact on rates would be “small,” according to CAP.
The board of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District meets Thursday in yet another high-stakes moment in the state’s effort to agree on a drought plan for the Colorado River.
The board could vote — or not — on a drought framework described last week in a meeting of the Arizona Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee.
The state’s plan has the backing of Gov. Ducey, Native American tribes and Valley cities, but was greeted with skepticism by Pinal County farmers and home builders.
A proposed “Friendly Amendment” to the plan, introduced to the Steering Committee last week by CAWCD board member Karen Cesare, asked for 21,000 acre-feet of water to mitigate developers, spread out over three years.
It would also re-apportion some of the water that the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Western Arizona would provide through a farm fallowing program. Instead of storing it all in Lake Mead to keep the level healthy, some would go towards the state’s required water cutbacks under the basin-wide DCP. That change could potentially make more water available for developers and Pinal County farmers who are at the end of the line for Colorado River water (and therefore, the first to be cut).
The idea, however, is unlikely to pass muster with on-river water users in Yuma and Mohave Counties. Those communities are against any on-river allocation being redirected to central Arizona, something Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke wrote in a letter to CAWCD Board President Lisa Atkins and Cesare.
At least one development group, Valley Partnership, thinks the amendment isn’t needed because a separate deal between the Gila River Indian Community and the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District will come through.
The Gila River Indian Community is entitled to about a fourth of the Colorado River water that passes through the Central Arizona Project’s canal. Much of the water flows to the reservation, where it helps irrigate about 36,000 acres of farmland planted with crops including wheat, sorghum, alfalfa, cotton and corn.
Because it holds this large water entitlement, the community has become a key player in efforts to unblock stalled negotiations in Arizona among state agencies, cities, irrigation districts and tribes on a plan to take less water from the dwindling Colorado River.
If Arizona manages to reach a deal — and it’s unclear whether it will — the involvement of the community and its leader, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, is likely to play a critical part in the agreement.
Lewis has been deeply involved in the talks, offering to help while also taking a strong stance against any proposal that would undermine the Gila River community’s historic water settlement, which his late father, Rodney Lewis, helped win in 2004 after a decades-long legal fight.
The governor said he thinks the parties are close to clinching an agreement on the proposed Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP. But he also said there are several principles he won’t compromise on, including defending his community’s hard-won water rights.
“Water settlements, to us they are sacrosanct. Water settlements have to be preserved,” Lewis told The Arizona Republic in an interview. “Those can’t be gutted.”
For Lewis, the drive to defend his community’s water settlement is a personal issue and one that’s bound up in the long history of how Arizona tribes saw their water taken away starting more than 150 years ago.
The Gila River Indian Community includes people from two groups, the Akimel O’odham and the Pee-Posh, and has about 23,000 members, about 15,000 of whom live on the reservation south of Phoenix.
The O’odham’s ancient ancestors, the Huhugam, created a thriving agricultural civilization in the desert centuries before the arrival of non-native settlers in Arizona…
Lewis’ father, as attorney for the Gila River Indian Community, fought for years to win back their water. And in 2004, the community finally secured its water rights as part of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush. Rodney Lewis died in April at age 77…
“We have fought to regain our water settlement, our water rights. That historic struggle has really shaped our community, to where we do not take for granted any drop of our water, what we call in our language the O’odham language ‘shudag’ – water is life,” he said. “We have survived, we have endured. But we understand as a people all too well when water, that precious resource, is taken away from us.”
He said it’s clear that all water users will have to deal with an increasingly limited supply of water.
Arizona is once again at a critical decision point in the ongoing struggle to secure our water resources. If we fail to take the right course, we risk igniting yet another Colorado River water war.
Lake Mead, from which we draw our share of the Colorado River, is dropping to perilous levels. In order to stabilize lake levels and protect our water supply, the Department of Water Resources has negotiated an agreement with California and the other basin states to begin reducing water diversions from the Lake.
California and the other basin states are ready to sign the agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). Arizona is the lone holdout, mainly because our state Legislature, caught up in special interest demands, has failed to ratify the DCP agreement.
CAWCD is overstepping its role
Behind this legislative impasse are two groups threatening to block ratification.
The first is the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), a local elected body that distributes our Colorado River water throughout central Arizona.
CAWCD is now reaching beyond its proper role by attempting to intervene in the interstate Colorado River negotiations.
These interstate negotiations are the exclusive job of the Department of Water Resources, whose director is appointed by the governor to represent all Arizonans…
Pinal County districts also are a threat
The second threat to legislative ratification of the DCP comes from the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, the Central Arizona Irrigation District and several other agricultural districts located in Pinal County.
In 2004, these Pinal districts signed onto a far-reaching water settlement agreement worked out under the leadership of Sen. Jon Kyl. In that settlement the districts agreed that their use of Colorado River water would be phased out not later than 2030, after which they would go back to full reliance on groundwater.
In exchange for giving up long-term rights to Colorado River water and pumping more local groundwater, the districts bargained for and received heavily subsidized Colorado River rates to be paid for by property taxes levied on landowners in Phoenix, Tucson and throughout central Arizona…
It matters a lot. If the Drought Contingency Plan is not ratified soon California and the other Basin states may decide to proceed without us. That could be the beginning of another Colorado River water war.
Arizona has blundered into Colorado River wars in the past, and we usually lose. We must not go that way again. It is up to the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to promptly ratify the Drought Contingency Plan as negotiated by the Department of Water Resources.