Senator Wirth has said there are no silver bullets for the water problem. But Senator Smith has a silver pipeline in mind. He's said he’s just sending a message with his capital bill to pipe the Gila River to Las Cruces. He told the Las Cruces Sun, "In the event they don't come to a consensus, I'm going to look at the prospects of transferring that over to the Rio Grande."
Shorter Senator Smith: Either everybody agrees or I’ll decide for you.
He’s referring to a ‘consensus plan’ among multiple interests in four counties on how to use water rights from a 2004 federal Gila River settlement. There’s a 2014 deadline for some federal money attached to the settlement and that’s what has Smith worried - dangling dollars.
In a letter to the New Mexico Senate Finance Committee dated February 27, 2013, Las Cruces Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Thomas, City Councillors Nathan Small and Gill Sorg and Doña Ana County Commissioners Billy Garrett and Wayne Hancock, express their strong opposition to both Smith’s pipe project and Senator Cervantes’s SB440 and strong support for water planning funding. (Letter after the fold.)
SB440 was passed out of the Senate Conservation Committee with 'No Recommendation' after an unusual closed session to discuss the pending litigation with Texas. I'm betting lawyers told the Senators mostly the same thing that's in the FIR for the bill. La Jicarita has excellent coverage of this and other water issues.
Here is the text of the letter in it's entirety:
Dear Senate Finance Committee Members:
We are writing to express our concern about legislation and funding requests that would allow the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to pipe water from Otero, Hidalgo, Grant, Luna, and Catron counties into the Lower Rio Grande Basin. While water is a limiting resource and the current drought has severely stressed our area, these are not grounds for hasty, speculative action that is fiscally irresponsible and heavy handed.
Specifically, we are referring to Capital Outlay requests from Senator John Arthur Smith that would begin the process of building pipelines from the Salt and Gila-San Francisco water basins to Doña Ana County. Senator Smith is requesting a total of $100 million for these projects. It must be stressed that these funds would only be a down payment.
Our immediate concern is with the economic feasibility of these projects. No one knows what the final price tag would be to pipe water from other parts of southern New Mexico to Las Cruces or what the cost of piped water would be for the ultimate users.
Consider that the cost to divert 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila to Deming has been estimated at $325 million. Logically, it would cost proportionally more than that to extend such a pipeline to Doña Ana County. A construction estimate in excess of $400 million would not be unreasonable. Significant additional costs would almost certainly be incurred for assessment and mitigation of environmental impacts.
Water supplied by these pipelines would not be free and could be extremely expensive. Since diversion would impact downstream Gila users, water costs could be based on market rates in Arizona. Surcharges could be added for pipeline operation and to offset the cost of pipeline construction. Possible rates are anyone’s guess because independent assessment of these projects has, to our knowledge, never been done.
The people who will be hurt by these projects are the water users and taxpayers that will have to foot the bill. We can tell you that a tax levy for a high risk, speculative venture will not go over well in Doña Ana County. Nor will businesses welcome an increase in operational (water) costs – especially when alternatives exist.
While we are primarily concerned with potentially adverse impacts on the residents of Las Cruces and Doña Ana County, we also recognize the interests of people who live in the Gila-San Francisco and Salt basins. We respect the rights of communities in those basins to decide for themselves on the future of their water supply and water basin management. It troubles us that Senator Smith’s proposals were introduced without any consultation with local elected officials from either the supply basins or Lower Rio Grande area.
Our opposition to Senator Smith’s pipeline proposals extends to potentially related provisions in SB440, sponsored by Senator Joseph Cervantes, to appropriate $120 million to “acquire, retire, protect and conserve water rights and conserve water in the lower Rio Grande basin” (emphasis added). However, we do wholeheartedly support Senate Bill 135, also sponsored by Senator Cervantes, which would appropriate $400,000 in state funds to update the regional water plan. We believe that policies and projects addressing water supply and use in the Lower Rio Grande should be comprehensive, fiscally prudent, and supported by all stakeholders.
We urge you not to appropriate any funds this year for projects that would pipe water in uncertain quantities and at uncertain costs into Doña Ana County. On the other hand, we strongly support funding that would identify and objectively assess the best ways to address water supply and demand issues in our area.
Farmers, businesses, and other water users in Doña Ana County are being critically affected by the current drought. The shortage of water is damaging to livelihoods, our local economy, and the overall health of the environment—including the Rio Grande itself. Forecasts of continued dry conditions will require new strategies to better balance water supply and demand. The future of our area—including both development opportunities and the general wellbeing of our residents—depends on smart water management. Updating the regional water plan would be an important step forward, particularly if this work can be done in concert with other regional planning initiatives.
Thank you for your service to New Mexico and consideration of our views.