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A Diversion of the Gila River Would be Wasteful, Harmful and a Big Mistake

The last undammed river in New Mexico, the Gila is under threat from a proposed diversion. Photo by Sandra Postel
The last undammed river in New Mexico, the Gila boasts the healthiest cottonwood-willow forest in the Southwest. The river and its habitats are threatened by a proposed diversion estimated to cost $1 billion. Photo by Sandra Postel

By the end of the year, New Mexico must notify the U.S. Secretary of Interior whether it will pursue the construction of a diversion project on the Gila River in the southwestern corner of the state.

New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission decided last week to recommend that the state pursue the diversion. But Governor Susana Martinez can – and should – intervene and choose a wiser course.

Here in the arid Southwest, it’s understandably difficult to pass up a chance to secure more water for the future of our farms and communities. Fear abounds that water shortages will crimp our economies and way of life.

Indeed, throughout the 20th century engineers built dams, diversions, pipelines and canals to store and move water to where it was needed. Water development effectively built the West.

But a new day has arrived. As rivers run dry, we have come to see that water has value not only when we divert it out of its channel, but also when we keep it in place. And the good news is that with more efficient water use and smarter water management, we can have healthy rivers and vibrant economies side by side.

That’s why the idea of diverting the Gila is a throwback to old thinking and an unwise choice for New Mexico.

First, sound economics argue strongly against the diversion. The estimate of construction, operation, and transactional costs for the project has ballooned from some $300 million to over $1 billion. Since the agreement setting forth the terms of a diversion project provides that the federal government would contribute up to $136 million (in 2013 dollars), New Mexicans would be saddled with an enormous construction bill.

One recent study estimated that if New Mexico’s cost-share amounted to $300 million (almost certainly an underestimate), water customers in southwestern New Mexico would see their annual water bills triple. If state taxpayers foot the bill instead, the tab could run up as high as $900 million.

An initial appraisal released in July by the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation found that none of the diversion alternatives under consideration generated long-term benefits that exceeded the estimated costs.

On the other hand, if the state decides not to pursue the diversion, a much more sensible and economical option opens up: the federal government will give New Mexico $66 million to pursue local projects to make better use of the water already available. A recent study by Western Resource Advocates shows that tried-and-true conservation, recycling, efficiency improvements, and already-planned local water transfers can meet the four-county region’s water demands through 2050, with water to spare.

Second, the Gila River is a rare ecological asset that provides numerous benefits worth protecting. It boasts the healthiest cottonwood-willow forest along any river in the desert southwest, one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in North America, and the most intact native fish community in the Colorado River Basin. It is also home to half a dozen threatened or endangered species.

All of these values depend on the Gila’s natural pattern of flow. It’s the timing and volume of flow – highs and lows, floods and droughts – throughout the year, and across many years, that sustain the habitats, food webs, and life-cycle behaviors that maintain the river system’s productivity and biological diversity.

By altering the Gila’s natural flow pattern, a diversion would harm the Gila’s ecology and jeopardize the rich diversity of plants and animals that call the Gila home. A scientific study published by the Nature Conservancy last summer documented that the mid-size, spring flows that would be diverted most frequently are crucial for recharging groundwater, sustaining floodplain vegetation, and maintaining the mosaic of aquatic habitats needed for the wide variety of life in the Gila River Valley.

A diversion of the river would harm the local economy, as well. Together the Gila and other Colorado River tributaries in New Mexico support a $1.6 billion recreation economy. The Gila’s portion of that revenue would be jeopardized not only by the diversion’s impact on the river’s flow, but by the unsightliness of the engineering infrastructure itself.

Lastly, a decision to divert the Gila River plants New Mexico firmly in the 20th-century water mindset, when it’s time to move water management into the 21st century. Forward-thinking cities and regions are moving away from dependence on big water transfers and toward innovative local projects that build resilience and self-reliance.

Just last month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a goal to cut his city’s water imports by half in ten years – a historic turnaround. Through conservation, reuse and better water management, Los Angeles is aiming to slash its water purchases and position itself for long-term sustainability.

With a $66 million infusion of federal dollars, southwestern New Mexico can become a showcase of smarter water management – demonstrating how a vibrant economy centered around a healthy river can co-exist side-by-side with productive agriculture and thriving communities.

Why give up that opportunity – a win-win for all – for a wasteful boondoggle of a project that will saddle the state with enormous costs, while destroying the ecology and recreational enjoyment of its last free-flowing river?

To learn more, and to take action, click here.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.