[Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series of articles on a workshop held by the NM CAP Entity on August 14, 2019.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

Because the Aug.14, 2019 session of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity was a workshop to deliberate, discuss and address comments on the business plan created by Stantec Inc., a consulting firm, no public input was allowed at the meeting.

NM CAP Entity Executive Director Anthony Gutierrez said he had received comments. "I printed them out and we will endeavor to incorporate them into the document." He apologized to Catron County. "I think we dropped the ball in getting their comments, which we knew would be late."

Scott Verhines, Stantec engineer, in charge of the business plan, said because they continue to receive comments, "the document continues to be a work in progress."

He said Stantec at the beginning of every meeting holds a safety moment. "Today I'm going to continue that and give you tips to staying safe in extreme heat." He cited the symptoms of heat exhaustion, which include headache, light-headedness, clammy skin, dizziness, heavy sweating, nausea, vomiting, weakness and confusion. "If you or someone you know experiences these types of symptoms, lay the person down in a cool area with his or her legs raised. Remove excessive layers of clothing. Give up to 1 liter of water. Do not give anything to drink if the person vomits. Cool the person with cold, wet cloths and a fan. If symptoms persist, seek medical attention."

Verhines gave a brief history of the Arizona Water Settlements Act. "It was signed into law in December 2004. It allows beneficial use of water from the Gila River, its tributaries and underground storage. The available volume averages 14,000 acre-feet of water per year, split 10,000 acre-feet for the Gila Basin and 4,000 acre-feet for the San Francisco River Basin. The act allocates up to $128 million (not indexed for inflation) in federal funding. Conditions for diversion of the AWSA water are outlined in the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement (CUFA)."

He also gave an overview history of New Mexico water development projects, including the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, not yet constructed, which has an estimated cost of $1.18 billion, indexed to 2019, for 37,764 acre-feet delivered at a cost per acre-foot, indexed to 2019, of $31,323; the Pojoaque Regional Water Supply Project, not yet constructed, at a indexed cost of $429.7 million for 4,000 acre-feet of delivered water at an indexed to 2019 cost of $107,430 per acre-foot; the San Juan Chama Project, completed in 1976, after beginning in 1951, at an indexed cost of about $660 million to deliver 96,400 acre-feet at an indexed cost of $6,850 per acre-foot; and the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Project at an indexed cost of $561 million, for delivered 16,450 acre-feet of water at an indexed cost per acre-foot of $34,000. The construction of the Ute Dam in the latter project was begun in 1959 and completed in 1963, creating the Ute Reservoir to replace groundwater supplies.

Verhines noted that these projects would mostly created for municipal and industrial uses. "The largest user of the San Juan-Chama project is the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy. Albuquerque had to put in another $600 million to deliver water to the municipality."

He addressed the availability of new water and its value. "Value depends on quality, quantity, priority date and availability. Water scarcity affects these four factors, and water demand affects the cost of the water. Sources of new water in the state of New Mexico are limited, and your regional water demand is expected to increase in the future, according to the city of Deming and the Southwest Regional Water Plan."

Howard Hutchinson, representing the San Francisco Soil and Water Conservation District asked if the proposed action for the San Francisco is solely for Alternative B, which is the latest version of the proposed action, including the diversion, farm storage ponds and ditch improvements, and "does it include future development?"

Verhines answered yes to both questions and explained briefly the components of the action later in the summary.

Ty Bays, representing the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, noted: "This may be the only new water available to Southwest New Mexico."

"There certainly are not a lot of opportunities to develop surface water," Verhines agreed. "There may be the potential for development of groundwater in other areas of the state."

Entity Attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said that no other source of surface water exists. "Everything is already adjudicated."

Bays said: "With no new water rights available in the Gila-San Francisco Basin, and the Mimbres Basin being closed, there is no new water, other than the AWSA water, in the area."

Gutierrez gave a brief comment on water modeling, in addition to that done a few years ago by AECOM and now by HDR, part of the team of contractors chosen by the Bureau of Reclamation and the joint leads to prepare the environmental impact statement. HDR is a contract engineering firm.

"Allen Campbell (representing the Gila Hotsprings Ditch Association) gave us a comment on what he's been tracking post-Whitewater Fire," Gutierrez said. "We've had preliminary conversations to model it. I wanted to recognize that."

Verhines said Dave Maxwell, Stantec engineer from Silver City, could help with those details.

"Wet water average is actual water, not paper water rights, that can be made available through the CUFA assessment against the proposed action," Verhines said. "The total consumptive use water available is the amount of water used by plants minus evaporation, seepage and return flow."

Bays expanded on the explanation. "In water rights, if you have a diversion, you can divert 3 acre-feet of water per acre. The consumptive use is 1.6 acre-feet. The remainder is likely going into the ground and eventually back to the river system."

Verhines said the ratio is roughly 60 percent of wet water and 40 percent return flow, based on adjudicated water rights.

A brief summary of the proposed action for the New Mexico Unit includes, in the Virden area, gravity flow through existing diversion structures, lined storage ponds and water pumped back into ditches for water call. The Gila River area includes a new fixed-weir diversion structure, lined storage ponds and ditch and irrigation well improvements. The San Francisco area includes storage improvements through privately-owned shallow conventional wells.

The business plan goals include making continued progress on infrastructure project development; assessing funding/financing opportunities to leverage local, state and federal resources; systematically and continually coordinating and communicating with Entity members, water users, relevant agencies and the public; and transitioning into an organizational structure with appropriate capacity to facilitate long-term operations, maintenance and replacement activities in coordination with its members and users.

On the future organizational structure, Verhines asked: "Is it a water seller to other entities? What is the final form it may take? For instance, the Eastern New Mexico Project started out as a JPA (joint-powers agreement) and turned into a water utility authority."

He listed potential AWSA water uses. "Using it for agriculture will give users the ability to transition to higher-value crops and will provide a dependable source of water in drought years. The ecological benefits include improving bird, fish and mammal habitat and maintaining stable habitat areas during drought years. Recreational uses included improved habitat, which will create more traffic from birdwatchers and hunters. The New Mexico CAP Entity may be able to coordinate calling for exchange water with Arizona as an economic opportunity."

Van "Bucky" Allred, representing Catron County, asked if recreational activities include other user groups, such as OHVs (off-highway vehicles) for use by senior or those who are handicapped.

Verhines said they had been talked about. "I didn't include all options. I didn't do a detailed analysis."

"I think motorized should be a vital part of the plan," Allred said.

"There will be more opportunity to discuss these things," Verhines said. "Fishermen are in there."

Hutchinson said, he, as a whitewater boater, could see adding water in the San Francisco from May to August could provide augmented flows for boating.

Joe Runyan, representing the Gila Farm Ditch Association, said: "It seems to me that when you boil it down, the opportunity of the project is based on instream flows. I think, with a controlled release of water, it would allow continued instream flow."

"Right now, the river dries up during certain seasons," Verhines said. "If you have storage, we believe there are benefits to keeping water in the river."

Runyan said: "We push up a dirt dam to put water in our ditches, and the river dries up below. With the project, we will have more water in the river and can meter it."

"I think this opportunity is a danger to those who rely on funding for endangered species," Bays said. "The Gila River Valley holds one of the largest populations of the southwest willow flycatcher, as well as the yellow-billed cuckoo. It has the largest Blackhawk population, and the largest spike dace and loach minnow populations. High water disturbance benefits them. The fact is all of these endangered or threated species are thriving in the Gila Valley. More sustained flows could help the fish species even more."

Campbell asked how many had been along the entire Gila drainage. "About 35-40 years ago, there were cattle on the middle of the East Fork. It was grassy. In 1959, you could drive a jeep to Cliff and Gila. Today, you cannot walk or ride the middle portion of East Fork. You can't get through the damn willows. We are using more water between junctions of the Middle Fork and West Fork to Cliff and Gila. We are using more water now, because of all the trees. These are conditions that invalidate river flows of the past. We had cattle. The evapotranspiration was minimal because there were few cottonwoods. No recent studies have been done. Look at the Gila Gauge. We have lots of biological water being taken up by the willows. I argue this average is inaccurate. The point is I think the potential to get water is enhanced, but summer water is going away. We can store it in the winter and spring. It makes this process important to keep people here."

"I think it's important for the public and elected officials to know," Bays said. "I'm a history buff. What you see today is artificial. I've seen old photos of the San Francisco and Gila rivers. These rivers were flashy. The Native Americans would light fires to get rid of the growth around the river. There were no riparian areas.

"I would like to comment on the removal of cattle from the rivers," Bays continued. "The real risk is not cattle stomping on the little fish. It's invasive species like catfish and largemouth bass. Our minnows thrive in shallow water. On the Verde River, they took away cattle and the minnows are gone."

Hutchinson said he has traveled the rivers. "In photos of the San Francisco in 1920, you can count the trees along the river, including junipers. I've seen photos of the bridge, with so many logs built up, they had to figure out how to move them. There were no trees. The floods had scoured them out. I sent the photos to the Forest Service. And, Ty, I would like to propose a friendly competition on the blackhawk. I think the San Francisco has more."

Domenici said he thinks there has been an evolution of opposition. "The environmentalists could bring up arguments that would win for them, and they are back. We need to take the opportunity to show visuals. Often the visuals the environmentalists show are not even in our area. They are higher up. It's propaganda. They have had to resort back to those photos. When we show our visuals, we have to reiterate where the project starts. There are still people waving their arms showing photos of where we're not any longer. This business plan is advocacy for us."

Campbell said the last most important issue is the economic plan. "It is important. We must harvest the spring floods, and right now, we have better opportunities because of the Whitewater Fire. The only issue is that we are losing rural population. We have to adjust to a new environmental time. We have to look after the rural population."

Verhines went to the summary page for the AWSA water cashflow.

Revenue sources include $66 million for the New Mexico Unit Fund, not indexed for inflation, and up to $62 million for the construction fund, not indexed for inflation.

For the purposed of the document, management costs are estimated at $328,000 a year not indexed for inflation and CAP exchange water at $158 per acre-foot, assumed for the document to be constant.

He presented the benefits of high-value crop transition, which would help cover administrative, operations, maintenance and replacement, and exchange costs of AWSA water, while maintaining healthy profit margins for farmers.

For the Virden area, the assumed consumptive AWSA water stands at 634 acre-feet, with net income increase over 10 years by $8.5 million, 20 years, $12 million and 37 years $17.2 million. For the Cliff-Gila Valley, assumed consumptive AWSA water is 2,000 acre-feet with net income increase of $2.4 million over 10 years, $2.7 million over 20 years and $3.5 million over 37 years.

Recommendations of the business plan are for 2019-20, near-term, to complete the EIS, receive the record of decision, develop the Virden area unit to 30 percent design, engage agricultural user groups, formalize advocacy outreach plan and have future storage discussions with the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission.

In the short-term, two to five years, the entity should design the Cliff-Gila infrastructure, construct the Cliff-Gila New Mexico Unit, request banking of CAP water, continue advocacy outreach plan, create conjunctive management accounting and make initial planning for the Mimbres Basin.

Long-term more than five years should include development of additional system storage, consideration of San Francisco projects and planning for municipal and industrial projects.

As for the comments so far received, Verhines said they fell into the following categories: grammar and factual corrections, which have been incorporated into the draft; economic principles from Reclamation and the ISC; capacity and reach of plan, which said to keep them brief and supportive of what the entity is doing, as well as engaging the audience. Last were stakeholder priorities perspectives.

Next steps include incorporating the relevant and necessary comments, voting for conditional approval, and updating the business plan according to the record of decision.

[Editor's Note: The next article will address some individual comments, although every item will not be reported, as some comments were already in the document the members were reviewing, and some weren't. This reporter had no way to figure out which was which. Although she had access to the document, the explanation of some of the comments was not included. The report will be more on what members said about general items.]