Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

For Immediate Release – Dec. 1, 2006

Contact: Michael Robinson, 505-534-0360

Conservationists Will Fight Las Cruces/El Paso
Water Grab on Gila River:
“We’re Not Going To Let That Happen.”

PINOS ALTOS, N.M. - The Center for Biological Diversity vowed to oppose transfer of water from the Gila River – New Mexico’s last free-flowing river – out of the Gila River basin to fuel urban sprawl in Las Cruces, N.M. and El Paso, Texas.

Retiring state Rep.Joe Stell, D-Carlsbad, remarked at an interim Water and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Wednesday that Gila River water could be piped to Doña Ana County. His comments were reported in yesterday’s Silver City Sun-News.

Stell compared Las Cruces unfavorably to Phoenix, Ariz. and implied that water from the Gila River could help turn Las Cruces into a new Phoenix.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Pinos Altos, N.M., neighboring the Gila National Forest, condemned the suggestion.

“The Gila River is precious for its endangered fish and birds. Destroying New Mexico’s last wildlife-rich river for the sake of urban sprawl in the greater Las Cruces/El Paso area is obscene,” said Robinson. “Draining the Gila will drive the Loach Minnow, Spikedace and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher closer to extinction. We’re not going to let that happen.”

Robinson also noted that the Gila River has been identified as a potential migratory corridor for endangered Jaguars on the U.S.-Mexico border to reclaim their ancient habitat in the Gila National Forest.

Removing water from the Gila River would ruin the natural hydrologic cycle that renews the cottonwoods and other big trees shading the river and providing wildlife habitat.

The Arizona Water Settlements Act, signed into law by President Bush in December 2004, authorizes construction of a project to remove 14,000 acre-feet of water per year from New Mexico’s upper Gila River and its tributary, the San Francisco River, for use in southwestern New Mexico.

The federal government would provide up to $128 million for such a project, approximately 43 percent of the estimated $300 million construction cost. Typically, such projects run well over budget.
State and local taxpayers would be responsible for the shortfall.

However, the law provides $66 million for any water-related purpose in southwestern New Mexico, independent of any decision to withdraw water from the Gila and San Francisco.

”That $66 million could be divided equally between Grant, Catron, Luna and Hidalgo counties and provide a perpetual endowment of a million dollars a year in interest payments to each county to promote conservation and wise use of their existing, renewable water sources,” said Robinson.

Local governments in southwestern New Mexico have been reluctant to take on the financial obligations of constructing a dam or other water withdrawal project. A study commissioned by Silver City, the largest town close to the Gila River, indicated that local groundwater could support projected urban growth for several hundred years. Silver City’s costs of acquiring additional water rights and drilling new wells would run one-sixteenth of the cost of construction of a project on the Gila River.

Neither Silver City nor Grant County, N.M. have signed on to a proposed Joint Powers Agreement among southwestern New Mexico counties that is intended to divvy up the river.
In the 1970s, the proposed Hooker Dam on the Gila River was defeated by southwestern New Mexico citizens, and in the 1980's the proposed Conner Dam and its alternative, the proposed Mangas Diversion, were also defeated.

“Draining the Gila was sold to Congress as a benefit to local communities,” noted Robinson. “But residents of southwestern New Mexico would like to keep their river intact and know that we don’t need the water locally.”

Robinson observed that “people drive all the way from Phoenix, where the formerly flowing Gila is now a dry and weedy gully, to enjoy the Gila River in New Mexico. We don’t need to destroy the Gila just to recreate Phoenix in the Las Cruces/El Paso area.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national non-profit conservation organization with more than 25,000 members dedicated to protecting endangered species and their habitat.


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