Poll shows New Mexicans oppose a Gila River Diversion project

SILVER CITY >> A recent poll by an independent research firm shows that many New Mexicans oppose a Gila River diversion project. The poll, conducted in late June of this year by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican political and public affairs research firm, was commissioned by Protect the Flows, an organization that opposes such projects. Five hundred voters statewide were contacted, with an extra concentration on the five southwest counties nearest the Gila River – Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, Sierra and Dona Ana Counties.

The poll is released at a time when the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) is considering whether to use federal funding under the Arizona Water Settlements Act to divert 14,000 acre feet of water from the Gila River – or to pursue non-diversion conservation alternatives. The funds can only be used only in southwestern New Mexico and the water must be consumed in New Mexico and cannot be leased or marketed outside of New Mexico. Many projects have been proposed across southwestern New Mexico since 2001. The Gila River diversion project is estimated to cost $300 million dollars. The ISC will make their final recommendations to the Bureau of Reclamation no later than December 2014.

At their March 11 meeting, the Grant County Commission passed a resolution in conditional support of Sen. John Arthur Smith’s, D-Deming, proposal to use the funding to construct a pipe to carry water from the Gila River in Grant County to Deming and likely onward from there. The resolution caused an uproar in the crowd, as many voiced their opposition to such a project.

The resolution said the commission would support the project if and only if it was first amended to include several planned water projects in Grant County. Conditions included “diverting, retaining, conveying and recharging the aquifer within the borders of Grant County with waters available through the Arizona Water Settlement Act,” the long-planned regional water project by the Grant County Water Commission, and a permanent irrigation solution for the Gila Valley. The resolution said that only with the inclusion of these projects would Smith’s proposed Southwest New Mexico Regional Water Supply Project gain the support of the Grant County Commissioners.

Much of the public outcry came from the fact that at the time of their resolution, neither the commissioners nor County Manager John Saari had even seen the amended proposal.

Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten has since said the commission had no choice but to support the measure the way they did. Kasten said he doesn’t believe the pipeline will ever happen but that if the commission didn’t get the local projects into the plan, Grant County would never see any of the available money for water projects; it would all go to the pipeline or other areas.

A majority of those polled said they oppose the idea of a Gila River diversion project and see it as “pricey band-aid” that will not offer a long term solution to solve water problems in the state.

Pollster Lori Weigel said that those polled viewed the project as a “temporary fix” – even though it would be a permanent structure because they believe we will continue to have droughts in the future, and lower snow pack, and we can only rely on rivers for so long, and we need to be doing more to reduce demand rather than seeking out new supplies –

“A purely infrastructure project that didn’t have some sort of efficiency aspect to it is not something they consider a long-term solution,” she said.

According to those polled, 85 percent favor using our current water supply more wisely by continuing to conserve water, and using new technology to help reduce wasted water, and increasing water recycling. Examples of preferred more cost-effective measures include: increasing conservation at home by using drought resistant plants, replacing outdated water infrastructure to reduce leaks and, water-saving irrigation incentives for farmers and ranchers.

Weigel said there is more opposition to the proposal in rural areas, and in the Southwest part of the state, and the more people hear about the details of a Gila River diversion project, the more they oppose it.

When initially asked, just under half of those polled indicate support for “the state of New Mexico helping to fund the construction of a pipeline to divert water from the Gila River in western New Mexico over the Continental Divide to cities and farms in southwestern New Mexico.” But support drops to 36 percent after those polled heard a brief explanation of why diversion is being considered and what it would entail – and fewer than one-in-three say are willing to pay more in taxes in order to fund construction of a pipeline to divert water from the Gila River.

Weigel said other polls looking at other pipeline proposals like one on the Green River that would divert water to Denver, had similar results.

“In Wyoming, when a survey was conducted in 2011, we saw a similar dynamic – that people preferred alternatives to diversion,” she said. “In Colorado, we asked about broad diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range, and even those on the Front Range opposed it, but Denver Metro is rather unique, due to a creative campaign by Denver water to really emphasize conservation,” she said.

The poll is said to have a 4.38 percent margin of error.

A few Silver City area residents responded to a question of whether they support or oppose the project on the Sun-News Facebook page on Thursday. Most said they oppose such a proposal.

“Oppose it,” said Jeramiah Johnson. “Many endangered species exist along the Gila and a massive diversion project would be one more step in eliminating these species. My son and I have seen numerous forms of wildlife along the Gila and it’s one of the few places he can experience such diversity free (somewhat) from human interaction. Let the water flow.”

Anthony Teran also said he opposes it.

“One of a kind wildlife habitat for some species,” he said. “The river barely has enough water anyways.”

Sonnie Sussillo said she also strongly opposes such a plan.

“In addition to the environmental reasons with which I agree, the critical issues for everyone who pays taxes to the state and the county are that the money to fund the building and maintenance of any diversion project will come out of our pockets as taxes eventually. The federal money allocated for a diversion project is $128 million, but estimates to build the principal diversion proposals (pipeline to Deming) are upwards of $300 million just to build. There’s no federal money to maintain, so that will come out of our pockets. And if we divert water from the Gila so that the water-rights commitment to Arizona isn’t met, that will cost us another approximately $2 million a year. This doesn’t count the loss of income from tourists who now come for the environmental/recreational benefits. And finally, where will the water go when it gets to Deming under the current proposal? INTO THE GROUND. There is federal money available, $66 million, I think, for non-diversion projects, which will be of more direct benefit to our communities of Silver, Bayard, and Hurley in meeting immediate water needs. I urge everyone to do the math and look beyond the politics of grabbing federal money and the lack of factual and truthful answers from the IWS and our own county commissioners.”

Only Sam Pitts said he was for the project.

“I need a job,” he wrote. “I’m all for the project.”

Christine Steele can be reached at 575-538-5893 ext. 5802.