The controversial Gila diversion project proposed by the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project, a group of 14 irrigation associations, conservation districts and local governments in Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, is “moving along,” according to Executive Director Anthony Gutierrez.
The Entity, however, has encountered numerous difficulties since its formation in 2015, and the project has garnered more — or more vocal, anyway — opposition and criticism than it has found support.
It can be easy to lose sight of the goals of the project, from the Entity’s perspective. Why does the Entity seek to divert up to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila and San Francisco rivers, and what are the proposed benefits?
Stan Jones, whose family operates Jones Farms, LLC, the largest farming enterprise in the Virden Valley, said he would buy Entity water if an upcoming decision regarding the Globe Equity Decree — the 1935 document that governs how Gila River water is allocated to users in southern New Mexico and Arizona — “goes the way it seems it will.”
Jones grows cotton, alfalfa, corn and pecans on about 1,850 acres that are irrigated by the Sunset Ditch Company and watered by wells next to the river that pump groundwater to the surface for drip irrigation. The six acre-feet per acre that he is allocated by the decree doesn’t include the water pumped from wells today, but that could change soon.
“Do I need the CAP water right now?” Jones asked. “No, we have enough water right now. If the judge decides that groundwater is included in the six acre-feet included in the decree, then there isn’t going to be enough water, and we’ll need the CAP water — it’s our insurance.”
Other benefits seem more far-fetched, perhaps.
At the regular meeting of the Entity in August, Ty Bays, of the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, suggested — not for the first time — that the Entity’s planned diversion in the Gila-Cliff Valley will benefit endangered species, an assertion that environmental groups have derided. Compared to current diversions on the Gila, though, would the permanent structures proposed by the Entity be less disruptive of habitats?
Gutierrez thinks so, and points to the current, rudimentary method used to divert water into irrigation ditches: earthen “push-up” dams that completely block the river and dry it up downstream. The Entity plans to replace a push-up dam on the San Francisco River in Catron County and another in “the Cliff-Gila area on the Gila River, 17 miles below the Gila Wilderness,” with two permanent, fixed-crest weir dams that will allow “fish passage” from either side.
Bays’ August comments elicited a response from Ron Troy — who spoke during public comment as an individual and not as a representative of the New Mexico Land Conservancy, for which he is the southern New Mexico projects coordinator — at the Sept. 3 Entity meeting. Troy thinks that developing water conservation methods and more efficient watering methods would have a bigger impact on farming in the Cliff-Gila Valley than a diversion that would provide 2,000 acre-feet of consumptive-use water. He also noted that there is a difference between the habitat provided by irrigation ditches and the habitats that existed before the river was diverted.
“When you get irrigation ditches, that isn’t increasing the habitat for the [endangered] common black hawk, the Southwestern willow flycatcher and other riparian-obligates,” Troy told the Daily Press. “When you divert a river into irrigation ditches, you’re not creating habitats — you’re just re-creating it. That whole area [the Cliff-Gila Valley] is on a flood plain, and by doing that, you don’t have natural riparian habitats. There is a big difference between an occupied, redistributed habitat and a natural flood plain with the natural habitat.”
As for aquatic species like the threatened loach minnow and endangered spikedace minnow, Troy told the Daily Press he couldn’t see the benefit to fish from a diversion.
“Taking more and more water out of the system — how could that benefit fish?” he said. “It’s ludicrous.”
“What a permanent diversion provides,” Gutierrez explained, “is a permanent grade-control structure, so the river can still have its proper function. Also, there is a cut-out section with a lower elevation for consistent in-stream flow. We’ve been accused of wanting to dry up the river — this will actually prevent that. [They’re] fixed crest with a riffle run, so that we can have an engineered slope that allows for fish passage up and downstream.”
A weir dam also makes measuring river flows easy — important for the Entity, since it can divert water only under certain conditions. Those measuring instruments may show there’s not enough water to divert anything some years.
“If, eight out of every 80 years, we can’t divert anything, then as a betting man, I’d say those are good odds,” Gutierrez said. “We would have stored water.”
Gutierrez offered an example.
“Currently, we have significant amounts of water in the fall and spring,” he said. “It’s anticipated that we can have that water that is stored available in the summer, and also that we can provide water to those using sprinklers and pivots by using water from the wells, and pumps to bring water from the reservoir.”
Those sorts of options would have been useful in recent years, Gutierrez said.
“Last year was a severe time,” he said. “We didn’t have rain for most of the summer, and then had a mediocre monsoon.
“By January 28, 2019, there was enough water that it could have been available for diversion under the CUFA” — the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement with downstream users that dictates when water may be diverted — “and if we’d had stored water, we could have released that water to make up some of the difference,” he continued.
Would it have made up for the dry months?
“No,” Gutierrez admitted, “but it would have made 2,000 acre-feet of water’s worth of difference.”
Jones agreed. He said that even if he were still able to use groundwater exclusive of the Globe Decree water, Entity water “would still be insurance” against times when the river is dry or so low that he can’t divert into his fields.
“It would ensure that we can do what we do now” in the future, he said. “CAP water wouldn’t increase the yield of our fields, but it would ensure we had water when they’re under threat.
“Without the recent rain — we’d just done our measurements and had used all our [allocated river] water — we wouldn’t have been able to water our fields,” he pointed out.
With a storage pond proposed on each side of the Gila River just to the east of the Virden Valley, theoretically Jones would be able to purchase supplemental water that is available above his farms. Right now, sometimes, there is water technically available to him — but it has already been collected in the San Carlos Reservoir far downstream, not in the river flowing by his farms.
“We’re allocated exchange water from the San Carlos dam — we use the river water and they release the exchange water from the dam — but if the river is dry, our water is in the dam, below us.”
The N.M. CAP Entity projects would change that.
“I would have water right here, instead of below where I can’t get it,” he said. “If the river is dry, I turn the [groundwater well] pump on. If that water is considered part of the decree, then we may not be able to use it anymore, and crops could die.”
“All of the ranchers would benefit,” in some way, Gutierrez said, and “the small farms would benefit even more. For example, if you have 50 or 100 acres, and only have 40 acres or 80 acres of water rights, since this is a closed basin and water rights aren’t available, there is no more water available. Those farms could put this [Arizona Water Settlements Act] water to use, and [for example] plant 10 acres of high-value crops.”
Growing those crops, like lavender, garlic, grapes, pecans and even cannabis, has been floated as a potential use for the Entity’s water.
Jones said he wouldn’t change his farming practices at all, and doesn’t plan to look at switching to higher-value crops.
“We grow what is economically feasible to grow,” he said.
Gutierrez sees the Entity water as a guarantee of sorts for farmers willing to take a chance and switch to high-value crops — the only way many could afford the water, which is projected in the Entity’s business plan to cost around $250 an acre-foot. Farmers in the Cliff-Gila area currently pay about a tenth of that cost per acre-foot. Critics of the project have said the actual cost of the water is hard to figure accurately, but it could cost twice that — or even more.
Jones said he knows he wouldn’t be able to afford to use Entity water for entire crops, and it’s not likely any farmers in the project area would. He estimates his current cost for ditch water in the Virden Valley to be about $40 per acre-foot, but said he would gladly pay $250 — or even far more — per acre-foot for “for five to 10 inches” of Entity water, when he needed it.
“Can we afford it? Not for the four to five acre-feet of consumptive use water we use” annually, he said. “Based on historic prices and yields, I cannot raise a crop completely using CAP water — but it could be a very important part of the equation.”
Gutierrez also said that components now missing from the Entity’s plans might be added in the future to the benefit of municipalities and domestic water users, including a pipeline that would carry water from the Cliff-Gila Valley to the city of Deming — a member of the Entity board, even though it will see no immediate benefit from the project as it stands.
“The Deming pipeline is still on the table. They would benefit from that” in the future, Gutierrez said — adding that there was an opportunity for other governments, too. “There are also a lot of problems around Grant County. Shallow wells, like Hanover’s well fields, and a depleted aquifer. That’s one of the reasons for the regional water supply project in Hurley. They want to get in there. It’s expensive to pump it uphill to Hanover,” Gutierrez said.
That sort of infrastructure raises alarms for some, however.
“Once you put that water in a pipe, you are giving it to the highest bidder,” Troy warned. “Look at the Owens Valley in California. It all went to the highest bidder. It’s desert now.”
Geoffrey Plant may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.