[Editor's Note: This author apologizes for the lateness of this report. Too many meetings and events this week. This is the final of three articles on the Grant County Commission work and regular meetings held last week.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
The Grant County Commission regular meeting on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, started out with public comment and several folks speaking out against the commission, as a member of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, approving the amended joint powers agreement between the Entity and the Interstate Stream Commission.
The first to express her opposition to the amended JPA was Donna Stevens of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance. She repeated some of her words from the previous day at the NM CAP Entity special meeting. "This JPA was formed to create a diversion. This is mission creep. It doesn't just give the entity the ability to explore negotiations, but also it gives the entity authority. It would give license to export Freeport's water out of the area. The entity would use public funding to benefit a global corporation."
Allyson Siwik of Gila Conservation Coalition spoke next. "This amended JPA gives the CAP Entity expanded authority to become the water czar for the region. We don't want to export water to benefit Freeport. It will impact the Gila Valley residents and the area. The CAP Entity is already siphoning off public funding to lawyers and engineers. This amended JPA expands their water kingdom."
Siwik commended Priscilla Lucero, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments executive director, for getting all the funding for Phase I of the Grant County Regional Water Supply Project for Hurley.
"But the Arizona Water Settlements Act New Mexico Unit Fund could pay for the whole project," Siwik alleged. "AWSA money can be better used for local projects, including benefits for the irrigators. I sent you our lawyer's analysis of the amended JPA."
Claudia Duerinck, Gila Valley resident, expressed her concern about the amended JPA. "The executive director was quoted as saying the entity has moved from a large diversion to small diversions for agriculture. The wording of the JPA shows the entity may become the authority for other water issues. The new focus is only on agriculture and not the other water issues in the area. The latest population for Grant County is at 28,280. That is a 4 percent decline since the 2010 census. Either 1,234 people have died or taken their time, talents and money somewhere else."
She said the Office of the State Engineer lists every ditch in the state. "Smaller projects will only provide water directly to the Gila Valley. There is nothing about Redrock or the Mimbres. Forty-seven people will benefit in the Gila Valley, How can you vote for this JPA? If I were a county commissioner on the CAP Entity, I would like written authority from Freeport that it is willing to negotiate, and I would like a wholly independent financial analysis. I don't want to face a long-time tax burden on residents."
Shelby Hallmark noted that when the Grant County Commission approved the original JPA, it expressed that it was doing so to assure keeping the water in Grant County. "The expansion being discussed clearly indicates that you are approving taking water out of Grant County. I urge you to go back to your purpose of keeping water in Grant County."
Anthony Gutierrez, NM CAP Entity executive director, spoke next. "I always appreciate public input. (Commissioner Harry) Browne questioned at a recent meeting why the amended JPA didn't have the possibility to fund additional non-diversion projects. All the projects we came up with at that time were given to the Interstate Stream Commission. The ISC funded 16 of those projects. We in the CAP Entity didn't want to supersede what the ISC had already done."
"As for export of water outside of the region, I don't know of any discussion of exporting water," Gutierrez said. "Two of our members, Deming and Luna are concerned about the depletion of the Mimbres Basin. All are concerned about water depletions. Our only thoughts are for water security. The only ones I hear talk about export are the opponents. Members talk about water security. I encourage people to come to our meetings and hear what's going on. As the former county planner, I know how hard is it to get money for projects. Priscilla is the hardest worker I know. Every year, the USDA has funds it sends back because no one applies for them. We want to talk to Freeport about using their water to recharge the aquifer and increase supply."
The next one to speak during public comment, again in opposition to approving the amended JPA, was Terry Timme of the Southwest New Mexico chapter of the Audubon Society. "I consider it an agreement ahead of its time until you get more information. The issue is not time sensitive, and money is not threatened, because it would not use AWSA money. I would suggest an amendment to allow better checks and balances or an amendment to secure water for Grant County for non-diversion projects. I ask you to consider tabling the amended JPA and tell the entity that you want one that gives you more say."
Rebecca Summers, a hydrologist, gave a review, "so we don't forget. Consider the unintended consequences if you send 2 billion gallons of water out of the county. It would impact the vegetation, the wildlife and the people. It would allow private water owners to sell out of the area. Your justification for being a member was to keep water in Grant County. This would open the door for Freeport to take more water. The risk is high in partnering with Freeport that Gila water would be sold. Table it."
Sara Boyett of the local chapter of the Audubon Society said she would like to refute or elaborate on what Gutierrez said. "I recall (CAP Entity Attorney Pete) Domenici (Jr.) and (entity member Howard) Hutchinson talking about marketing water. The AWSA water is controlled under the CUFA (Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement) with strict guidelines for taking the water. Freeport senior water rights have no such constraints. Phelps Dodge, before it sold to Freeport, was looking at building a pipeline to export water. New Mexico is the only state without an environmental flow regulation to keep water flowing in the river. This has the potential to dewater the Gila. I ask you to vote to kill the amendment as it is. Draft an amendment to benefit Grant County. I think the Grant County Commission should have a larger say. Draft a motion and draft a new amendment."
Ron Troy, Grant County citizen, said the amendment needs checks and balances. "It's a trust issue. You are given a task that is against national trends of decommissioning dams. The country is trying to keep the rivers colder, keep the riparian areas alive. We are talking about resiliency. This is contrary to where the U.S. is going. The NRCS (National Resource Conservation Services) is going in the opposite direction. The entity needs more diversity. The Nature Conservancy has been doing this sort of thing on a watershed basis. They have 60 years experience."
"I'm seeing everything driven by greed," Troy said. "Grab the water before it gets to Arizona, which makes no sense. We need a different board that public can trust, instead of sending us to lawsuits. The big issue is that the CAP Entity trusts the ISC and the Office of the State Engineer. When I lived in the Hondo Valley, I was constantly battling the OSE to keep it from transferring my senior water rights. It was a losing battle. Why is the ISC not charged with not impairing water rights? My vision is to conserve and bring in partners like NRCS."
Claudia Efferdink shared her experience of living in Connecticut for 40 years. "We were pressured to have our water diverted to feed the people of Boston. Once the pipeline was built, it meant flooding of three towns to build a reservoir. We have succeeded in not letting it happen here. I want to say to my grandchildren that I live in a sustainable manner. Do not divert any more."
County Treasurer Steve Armendariz said he has been hesitant to say anything about the water issue, "but I will speak up. I approached a former Luna County commissioner the other day. My understanding is that Luna County doesn't need water. I asked him why the county wants more water. He told me they don't want more, they want the water so they can sell it to Doña Ana County. I said to him: 'Don't hurt us to benefit you.' I asked Mr. Gutierrez about it and he told me Luna County would not have incentives to sell it, because Luna County would have to pay exchange costs for the water. We need not to allow the CAP Entity to be water czars."
When the agenda reached the issue of the amended JPA, Commissioner Gabriel Ramos moved for discussion and Commissioner Billy Billings seconded it.
Browne was the first commissioner to speak on the issue. "I thank Gutierrez for coming. I've been following the issue. There have been some questions about the intent to sell water outside the area. I find it highly plausible that they don't have that intent, but water flows uphill to money. Even if it's not the CAP Entity that exports it, if a diversion is built, it opens the possibility. Not to simultaneously negotiate and authorize the use of the water, but I would still oppose although investigation is always good. I urge us to reject this amended JPA and only authorize negotiations with Freeport."
Commissioner Alicia Edwards said she agreed with the public and Browne. She had the administrative assistant bring up some photos. "I would like to bring attention to the image on the screen. It's what happens when you separate water from the land. The land becomes fallow. This was taken in Arizona. It goes to the idea that our stated goal is to keep water in Grant County. Regardless of what the CAP Entity says, what is important is what is written. We are here to provide good stewardship of the public from harm. I am opposed to this."
The third to speak was Billings. He, in his first comment, teased Daily Press reporter Ben Fisher for seemingly always headlining his stories on water meetings with the words "controversial" and "complex."
He agreed the issues are complex, but "what I hear to often is misinformation. We believe what we hear when we believe it is coming from reliable sources. Even this morning, I have heard some misinformation. Be assured that Grant County made sure to limit our exposure. Yesterday was not the first time I was at a CAP Entity meeting. I hope the project will lead to a way to store water for beneficial use. Some residents are asking us to withdraw from the entity. I don't support withdrawing. I think the entity needs our voice."
"I decided to let the director and the engineer explore talking to Freeport, if Freeport is even interested in negotiating," Billings continued. "The CAP Entity can do nothing to control the ISC. I do think it's important to monitor expenses so as not to waste money for engineers and lawyers. I believe in trust, but verify to make sure we're not letting loose a spending spree on engineers and lawyers."
He said Freeport did not ask for this and is being cautious about their name being thrown around. Freeport doesn't want to divest of its water rights.
"I had a concern," Billings said, "and even yesterday, I was not sure of how I would vote today. People have been telling me the water from Bill Evans Lake could only be used out of county, but it can be used to benefit Redrock and Virden. They could benefit even upriver from Bill Evans storage. Grant County needs to keep its seat on the entity. I encourage the entity to look at other projects. And I think Grant County should approach the ISC on the potential effluent reuse project, even if the CAP Entity can't.
"As we are friendly to agriculture in the Gila Valley, I keep hearing about the free-flowing Gila River," Billings said. "There are somewhere between 11 and 20 diversions on the river, using the water for beneficial use. I am encouraged by the discussion yesterday of on-farm storage ponds. And unrelated to this JPA, I appreciate the well-thought out comments that have been rational to help me think about this. I've been cautioned to verify facts."
Ramos said it has been a great conversation. "I've always done my best to represent the people who put me in office. I attend meetings. The same people, who have been saying we have enough water, once told me we didn't have enough water. They are always at every meeting opposing everything I stand for. I do admire people that stay involved, but some are being paid to be here to present the agendas they're being paid for."
"I never heard at a meeting that we want this water going to Doña Ana," Ramos continued. "Except for Sen. John Arthur Smith who said if we didn't do something with the water, he would see that it goes to Doña Ana. I just sent my son to college to hopefully get an engineering degree. Will he be able to come back to Grant County? I want him to have a job, raise a family and live here.
"Our treasurer said the goal in Luna County was to transfer the water it receives to Doña Ana County," he said. "I texted the person he referred to, and his reply was 'Absolutely not. I'm not that stupid.' We do the best we can to represent our county. We live in a republic. I am charged to represent the people of Grant County, and I will do my best to build infrastructure for Grant County residents."
The motion passed, 3-2, with Browne and Edwards dissenting.
But later in the meeting the issue caused verbal fireworks. When it came time for Armendariz to give his report, he gave a few statistics, then said: "I ask your attention, please. First of all, I do not appreciate anyone calling me a liar."
"I just wanted to make sure he had his say," Ramos replied.
"I confronted Gutierrez to clarify what my friend had said," Armendariz said. "His comments to me were not nice. He knows those conversations were held. I went out of this meeting to get Gutierrez to verify that I talked to the man from Luna County. I am not a liar. I am not a politician, and I will not bring to you what is not true."
Commission Chairman Brett Kasten gaveled the debate to a halt. "This should not be done in public."
This is the last article reporting on the work and regular sessions of the Grant County Commission last week.