Damming the Gila River is a vampire proposal that would suck the life out of Southern New Mexico’s most treasured wild and scenic river.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to kill the project. Both of New Mexico's U.S. senators have tried to withdraw federal funds. Public opinion is against it. But like the vampires of legend, it refuses to die.

A better alternative is to take New Mexico’s water entitlement from existing dams on the San Juan River in Northern New Mexico.

The delusion of a dam on the Gila traces back to 1968, the year that Congress enacted a giant Western water bill authorizing and funding dam construction projects throughout the Colorado River Basin.

As part of that legislative deal, Congress confirmed New Mexico’s right to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila, a tributary of the Colorado River that arises in mountains of southwestern New Mexico.

Plans for putting this water entitlement to work by building a dam gained momentum in 2004 when Congress enacted another big bill to settle water rights downstream in Arizona.

Since then, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, supported by local officials in Southern New Mexico, has doggedly pressed forward, ignoring public opinion and the advice of state and national leaders. Their argument, incessantly repeated, is that New Mexico must use the water; otherwise it is giving away its birthright to downstream users in Arizona.

Even though I am an Arizonan, I agree that New Mexico is entitled to and should be able to use its Gila River water rights. There is, however, a better way to use your water right than despoiling the exceptional wilderness values of the upper Gila River.

We begin by recognizing that under the complex laws governing the Colorado River and its tributaries, New Mexico’s “ Gila River water entitlement” is in fact what is known as a “Lower Basin water right” that can be withdrawn from most anywhere in the Colorado River basin.

The best place from which to take this water is from the San Juan River, a Colorado River tributary that flows westward across Northern New Mexico. New Mexico’s Lower Basin entitlement can be withdrawn from the San Juan and delivered down the natural waterway of the Rio Grande for use in Southern New Mexico.

Moreover, the water delivery infrastructure for this alternative already is in place. It is called the San Juan-Chama Diversion.

This San Juan-Chama Diversion delivers an average of 200,000 acre-feet from the San Juan River across the Continental Divide into the Rio Grande, which delivers water downstream to Albuquerque and other users along the river.

Diverting an additional 14,000 acre-feet per year through the San Juan-Chama Diversion and sending it down the Rio Grande to Southern New Mexico would have a negligible effect on the San Juan River, reducing its flow by about 1 percent.

Switching the point of diversion in this manner will require congressional authorization. However, that should not be difficult. Arizona would have no basis to object since its net deliveries from the Colorado River Basin would not be affected. And by using the existing dams and associated infrastructure of the San Juan-Chama Diversion, New Mexico and the federal government would be spared the hundreds of millions of dollars otherwise wasted by diverting the Gila.

With this new alternative, the Gila River will remain wild and free, flowing undisturbed through the great forests and sustaining wildlife throughout the Gila Wilderness region.

Bruce Babbitt is the former governor of Arizona (1978-1987). He served as secretary of the interior from 1993-2001 under President Bill Clinton. 

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