Gila Confusion: Which water demands?

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Gila River, downstream of the proposed diversion. Photo by Laura Paskus.

Gila River, downstream of the proposed diversion. Photo by Laura Paskus.

In June, New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAP Entity, board members were making a decision involving millions of dollars that will affect southwestern  New Mexico for generations.

In the lead-up to their vote involving how much to spend  building a diversion on the Gila River, they heard from engineers and hydrologists describing conceptual plans for diversions, pipelines, and reservoirs. Under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico is allowed to develop 14,000 acre feet of water for Hidalgo, Luna, Catron, and Grant counties.

But before the engineers laid out planning options for the board to consider, Craig Roepke, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s Gila Region Manager, set the stage. His remarks focused on the demand for additional water in the region. On a screen at the front of the room, he showed that water demand ranged from 45,000-160,000 acre feet of water (slide nine in this  PowerPoint presentation).

Roepke called it a “rough cut” estimate of water needs in southwestern New Mexico.

“It doesn’t matter where you put a project or what it would be,” he told the board members. “Even if you could develop every acre of AWSA water, you couldn’t ever meet needs, even in any particular basin.”

It was a dire sounding warning to the board members, just as some were starting to worry about how they could afford building a large-scale diversion project with only $80 to $100 million in federal subsidies.

Numbers games

Although Roepke’s point to the board was clear, consistent numbers for the region’s water demands are hard to come by.

In the agency’s recently released draft water plan for the southwestern region, for instance, its authors estimate that vulnerability to drought and declining groundwater levels will mean drought-year water shortages in the 2060s of 159,250 to 186,150 acre-feet.

That plan also sums up complex calculations about potential water demand in the region through 2060 in a simple table (Table 6.5, page 49).

On the high end, the plan projects the overall increase in water demand for the region at 16,996 acre-feet more than 2010 demand, just 2,996 acre feet higher than the water rights available from a Gila River diversion project.

On the low end, the plan projects water demand to decrease below 2010 levels by 9,904 acre-feet.

At about 63,000 people today, the four-county area’s population doesn’t place huge demands on the region’s water supply—and the population isn’t expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. Rather, farms and mines represent the largest water users.

Following passage of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act—the law giving New Mexico 14,000 acre feet of “new” water rights on the Gila River—the Interstate Stream Commission funded a number of studies to help guide its decision on whether to glean that water through conservation and efficiency measures or by building a diversion.

One study contracted by the ISC, and published in 2010, showed there weren’t significant demands for new water in the region.

That 195-page report laid out historical and current water demands in Hidalgo, Catron, Luna, and Grant counties and also estimated future water demands.

The vast majority of the region’s water is used by farms; more than three-quarters goes toward irrigated agriculture.

But according to the 2010 report, many farms are no longer profitable—due to current economic and environmental conditions—and some owners have sold their water rights to other farms, municipal water users, or domestic water users.

The second largest water user is the region’s copper mines.

Looking at future water needs from copper mining, the authors note that given low copper prices, it’s “unrealistic” to assume that even in the future mines will use all the water Freeport McMoRan, Inc. already owns rights to in the area.

In a 2012 legal analysis published in the University of New Mexico’s School of Law “Natural Resources Journal,” the author reiterates that point: “Given the projections of only moderate population growth, moderate agricultural growth, declining mining activities that may free water supplies for other uses, and an uncertain and evolving alternative energy market, there does not appear to be a reasonably foreseeable future demand for a large new federal water diversion project on the Gila in New Mexico.”

Published two years before the Interstate Stream Commission voted to build a diversion, the author concluded: “Utilizing this simple comparison of costs for reducing demand through municipal conservation versus increasing supply through a new federal water project, it is clear that closing the projected gap between available water supply and future water demand with local water projects will be a much more cost-effective option.”

ISC’s lack of answers

Craig Roepke, former Gila Region Manager, Interstate Stream Commission

Laura Paskus

Craig Roepke, former Gila Region Manager of the Interstate Stream Commission, in the audience of a 2014 meeting in the Cliff-Gila Valley about proposed diversion options. Credit: Laura Paskus

During his June 2015  presentation to NMCAP Entity directors, the ISC’s Roepke ran through things like water needs near the city of Deming, the Gila Valley, and the San Francisco Basin, as well as demand for additional water in southwestern New Mexico.

Complete with black and red numbers – denoting water use, water credits, and water debits – his slides were something of a blur, even to people who had been paying attention for years to the proposed project.

Wanting to understand how he arrived at those numbers, NMID requested the documents on which he based his presentation.

The ISC responded to that Inspection of Public Records Act request with a handful of documents, including emails about the request, and an undated table entitled “Summary of fallow lands with no water rights, Gila-San Francisco Basin.”

In one of those responsive emails, dated about a week before the presentation, Roepke writes that the presentation about water needs in southwest New Mexico was composed of portions of other public presentations.

In that email, which is addressed to other ISC staff members, the NMCAP Entity executive director, and contractors, he adds: “The needs illustrated in the presentation alone yield (if you’ll excuse the pun) a simple message: No matter where you put a NM Unit, or how it might be structured, the water yield under the AWSA will never meet demands, much less exceed them.”

That’s exactly the message he brought to the meeting: No matter where the NMCAP Entity might build the proposed diversion – or how big it is, or how much the state spends  – it still won’t be enough.

Still unclear about how the data and conclusions presented to the NMCAP Entity were derived, NMID followed up with the agency again.

The agency’s Public Information Officer responded with a one-paragraph response:

In regards to your question to Sonia yesterday, the acreage in the Deming area is derived from discussions with the Office of the State Engineer, the NRCS, and the Deming Soil and Water Conservancy District.  Acreage estimates ranged from 24,000 to 35,000. 24,000 acres was used as the most conservative.  Effluent reuse figures came from municipalities.  The non-irrigated or fallow lands in the Gila and San Francisco Valleys come from the survey provided previously to you.  The natural recharge figure comes from the Mimbres model used by OSE and others.

Again, NMID followed up, asking why those documents or notes from those discussions weren’t included with the IPRA-responsive documents.

Then, in September, NMID filed a complaint with the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General.

The Interstate Stream Commission’s attorney responded to the Attorney General, stating that the agency had indeed released all relevant documents to NMID. Amy Haas, General Counsel for the ISC, also wrote that Roepke based his presentation mostly on verbal conversations he’d had with various people.

“He has no notes of any of those conversations,” Haas stated.

No mention was made of earlier studies or the region’s draft water plan. And neither those, nor the public presentations Roepke says he based his June presentation on, were provided to NMID as responsive documents.

NMID requested to interview Roepke, so that he could explain the numbers and conclusions presented to the NMCAP Entity before their vote.

But Roepke has since retired from the agency.

4 thoughts on “Gila Confusion: Which water demands?

  1. The idea of harnessing the last wild river in New Mexico is absolutely criminal! It would only benefit a handful of farmers and the mining industry. This is not even taking into account the HUGE costs to the citizens of our state. The federal money would only cover a fraction of what this ill-conceived plan would cost.
    Leave the river wild so future generations can see what an actual wild river looks like.

  2. An additional 14,000 acre feet of water doesn’t seem like enough water to initiate a major water project.

    The ISC seems to be employing a strategy an associate and I ran into a number of years ago during a meeting with a Deputy Secretary of Defense. In trying to sort out conflicting information we’d gotten in previous meetings with different government employees, we asked the Secretary “which is correct, what do the documents say?” They replied that there were no documents. The idea seemed to be to frustrate FOIA requests by giving powerpoint presentations that existed only for the purposes of informal, off the record conferences. Ideas were exchanged, but no records were kept!

    Mr. Roepke seems to be pulling numbers out of a hat and subsequently his associates are saying; “Hat? What hat? I didn’t see any hat.”

  3. Basically… and as many people witnessed all through the AWSA public meetings charade, Roepke conveniently makes stuff up. If you start with a bogus outcome in mind, the only path is lying and deceit. Basing millions upon millions of future tax dollars on the backs of the four counties’ residents on “verbal conversations he’d had with various people” and “He has no notes of any of those conversations” is outrageous, if not illegal. Enjoy your lucrative retirement Mr. Roepke.

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