CLIFF, N.M. -- M.H. Dutch Salmon stood on a recent morning on the Iron Bridge, the distinctive red structure that spans the Gila River here, and recalled his 220-mile journey along the waterway more than three decades ago.
At that time, state and federal officials were mulling the construction of the Conner Dam, and Salmon was planning to ride the river in what was expected to be its final years of free-flowing water.
"The Conner Dam was a sure thing, so I thought, 'Well, I want to see the river before it's gone,'" recalled Salmon, who arrived in New Mexico in 1982. He set out with his dog Rojo, added a cat for "comic relief" and later wrote about it in the book "Gila Descending."
Salmon, who speaks in a slow and measured tone, jokes now that his trip was "premature." Within a decade, the Conner Dam project would fall victim to environmental and budgetary worries, and a subsequent effort to create a diversion project on Mangas Creek tributary failed in the 1990s.
But efforts to claim water from the river continue, and Salmon, who founded the Gila Conservation Coalition in 1984, now finds himself in opposition to the latest effort: a diversion project that by some estimates could cost as much as $1 billion to build and maintain.
New Mexico's Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), an executive body appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez (R), voted in November to pursue a new Gila River diversion project aimed at claiming another 14,000 acre-feet of water a year. The proposed diversion would draw water from the river during high flows, store it in canyon reservoirs and pipe it to communities as it's needed.
While no guarantee the project will be built -- it merely notifies the Interior Department the state intends to proceed with planning -- the ISC vote did trigger a provision that will grant the state $62 million in federal funding for the project.
New Mexico would have lost access to those funds, part of a $128 million pot Congress set aside in 2004, had state officials failed to make a decision before the end of last year.
But the ISC vote, and discussions leading up to it, exposed sharp divisions in the state, as conservation and sportsmen's groups citing concerns over the project's potential environmental impact and price tag run head-on into state officials ready to press forward.
Project foes note that much of the federal funding now going to studies and consultants' fees for the diversion could be used for conservation projects, water reuse and infrastructure in four drought-prone counties in southwestern New Mexico.
Salmon blames the repeated efforts to tap the Gila River on a mindset that sees "water is wasted in the stream" whenever the resource is allotted but not consumed by so-called upstream users.
"That's the prevailing attitude, and you'll hear it at public meetings," said Salmon, an avid outdoorsman who served on the ISC himself in the mid-1980s and spent six years on the state Game and Fish Commission beginning in 2005. He has also written numerous fiction and nonfiction books about the region, including "Gila Libre! New Mexico's Last Wild River."
Lowering his voice to imitate a growl, he added: "People say, 'That's our water.'"
The latest bid to divert water from the Gila River, which flows west into Arizona, is tied to the Arizona Water Settlements Act, a 2004 federal law aimed at settling water rights disputes along the river.
The law gave New Mexico the right to pull an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water from the river annually over 10-year periods, although it must ultimately "buy" any water it removes via payments to Arizona.
For comparison, an acre-foot of water is 326,700 gallons of water, and the average person uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
New Mexico state Rep. Dianne Miller Hamilton (R), whose 38th District seat includes both Grant and Hidalgo counties in the state's southwestern corner, is among the proponents of claiming those water rights, seeing billions of gallons of water as a boon to her region.
"The water is better than oil in our state. It's like discovering gold," Hamilton enthused last month during the annual Grant County Prospectors reception in Santa Fe, marking the end of Grant County Day at the state Legislature.
Like many of the advocates for building a new diversion, Hamilton, who has served in the state House since 1999, believes the state would be remiss not to take advantage of additional water resources.
"We have so many more people on this Earth than we had before. It's important to take care of them," Hamilton said.
Grant and Luna counties have grown in recent decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Grant County, home to Silver City, increased to 29,000 residents in 2013, down from its peak of 32,000 in 1998 but still a 12 percent uptick since 1980.
Luna County, home to Deming, claimed a much larger increase from 1980 to 2013, growing from 16,000 residents to nearly 25,000 in that time, but also down from its 2009 peak of 27,000.
That kind of steady growth is a key factor for the Gila San Francisco Water Commission, the authority for irrigation and municipal water interests, which has likewise backed a new diversion.
Commission Chairman Anthony Gutierrez didn't return an interview request for this article, but he has publicly endorsed the project as an investment in the region's future.
"If we need water 30 to 50 years from now, what would that cost be at that time?" Gutierrez said at a commission meeting early last year, according to the Silver City Sun-News. "It could be multiplied by millions, billions even."
Gutierrez also disputed criticism that his agency -- which is vying to become the official entity charged with recommending a final plan and serving as the contact for a series of federal studies -- has not considered alternatives to a new diversion project, such as reuse and conservation efforts.
"We've always been a proponent of conservation projects," he said. "People think of us as the bad guys up here, but we've never not supported conservation."
At a recent Santa Fe forum on drought sponsored by the Western Governors' Association, ISC acting Director Amy Haas suggested efforts to focus on conservation rather than pursuing the water it is permitted to take could actually prove more difficult for the state -- although she later clarified her remarks to say such efforts were "not incompatible at all."
"In my opinion, conservation necessarily means reducing consumptive use, and if you are an upstream state on a compacted river, that can be problematic," Haas said. "Because it affects, ultimately, if you've got an interstate stream compact that has a delivery requirement attached to it and you are conserving water and reducing consumptive uses in your state, I think that return flows may be affected or mainly those deliveries that you might otherwise make to downstream states."
She added, "It's something that we need to be really thoughtful about. Conservation may have these benefits, but we also again need to think regionally about it."
Big price tag
Opponents of the diversion argue there are a host of factors state officials have brushed aside as they press ahead on plans for a diversion: primary concerns about the project's costs and funding, as well as whether it will yield any water at all.
"My concern all along -- whether it was free-flowing, partial diversion or full diversion -- is questions aren't being answered about the budget and how it's going to be paid for," state Sen. Howie Morales (D) told Greenwire after the Grant County Prospectors event.
Although federal sources could contribute up to $128 million for the project -- about half of which is designated specifically for diversion, while the rest can be used for a range of water-related infrastructure, conservation or other plans -- Haas said current estimates put the total cost of building the diversion at $600 million. Opponents argue maintenance and payments to Arizona will bump that figure as high as $1 billion.
In remarks at the governors' association forum in Santa Fe, Haas acknowledged the funding gap could be a challenge, stating that it will likely require "creative solutions" to pursue the development such as "private-public partnerships." Haas later said such partnerships are being discussed by the Gila San Francisco Water Commission, directing questions about those plans to the commission.
Given the project's long timeline -- a "horizon" Haas put at 10 to 15 years -- she said finding funding sources should not be impossible: "We're talking about yeas and years and years before ground will be broken on any sort of development on this water."
But Morales expressed concern that the project could ultimately represent a "huge tax increase" for residents in his region.
According to a 2014 study published by Western Resource Advocates, costs for the diversion could increase water bills in the region from an average of $200 per year to more than $670 per year.
In his interview, Morales acknowledged that with a Republican governor and a divided state Legislature -- Republicans won control of the House for the first time in decades in November, while Democrats control the Senate -- attempts to block the project via legislation could be difficult.
"We need to be realistic as far as the political landscape," he said, adding that he wants to avoid seeing the existing federal funds go to legal fees and court battles over the project.
Morales introduced a bill this week that would mandate that at least $77 million of the federal funds be used by the state for "nondiversion alternatives" such as forest and watershed restoration, municipal and agricultural conservation, and infrastructure improvements.
In an interview in his office at the Roundhouse, as New Mexico's Capitol building is known for its distinctive shape, state Sen. Peter Wirth (D) voiced similar skepticism about the diversion's costs.
"The price tag has just skyrocketed. Just in the past year, the number has gone from $300 [million] to $500 [million] to $1 billion," lamented Wirth, who is chairman of the Senate Conservation Committee. "The big issue moving forward is and will continue to be, where's the money going to come from to build the diversion, and is the project viable from an engineering perspective?"
Wirth later added, "If the request is to spend hundreds of millions, potentially $1 billion in state taxpayer money for 7,500 acre-feet [annually], that should cause every state legislator to pause."
Late last month, Wirth said he was still deciding what legislation to introduce this session but noted his options included a bill to require the ISC to check back with the Legislature as it proceeds with steps like selecting a local water authority and engaging in federal surveys.
Similarly, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D) introduced a bill last week that would require the ISC to provide a report on the "financial viability" of the diversion before the local water authority can enter any agreements with the Interior Department.
How much water?
Debate over the diversion has also leaked into an ongoing discussion about how New Mexico's state commissions and boards are appointed.
State lawmakers also plan to take aim at the ISC, said Wirth, who this week introduced legislation to restructure the commission, providing for half of the eight-member panel to be appointed by the governor while the New Mexico legislative commission would appoint the other four members. Currently, the governor appoints all members of the panel.
"The tension is between the Legislature and the executive branch," Wirth said last month. "I think we need to look at the structure of the ISC itself."
In addition to questions of cash flow, debate over how much water the project will ultimately generate also remains a major point of contention for opponents of the project.
In a scathing report published in July, former ISC Chairman Norm Gaume slammed his modern-day successors over a "flawed and deceptive planning process."
"The ISC's public statements deceptively describe the project as if it would yield the authorized 14,000 acre-feet per year on average of consumptive use," Gaume wrote. "It won't."
At a November meeting in Albuquerque, ISC officials acknowledged the actual yield would likely be lower because of issues like evaporation and seepage. An ISC aide reported the expected yield is between 6,000 and 8,000 acre-feet annually, the Albuquerque Journal reported at the time.
Audubon New Mexico freshwater program manager Sharon Wirth explained that based on historical flow records of recent decades, the river's flows would not be high enough to divert at all in some years.
"Half of the time, there's no diversions occurring at all," said Wirth, who is a distant relative of the state senator.
Wirth also said plans for a series of small reservoirs are flawed, citing ISC data showing that the diversion would likely face significant losses not only from evaporation but also via seepage: "Even if all things worked perfectly ... they'd lose about 50 percent of the water to leakage," she said.
In his report, Gaume also points to likely issues with sediment and other debris that occur in the river following forest fires or floods, the period when the river would be available for diversion.
Gaume's criticisms also extended to the state court, where he sued the ISC in October over allegations that it had violated the state's open meetings laws on its discussions about the Gila River.
Although Gaume received a temporary restraining order to stop the ISC from issuing its decision on the diversion, a judge dissolved that order in November, allowing the commission to move forward.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in April, but last month the ISC filed a countersuit against Gaume. The agency argues Gaume should pay damages because he brought his suit in order to prevent the ISC from meeting its December deadline.
Gaume did not return a telephone call for this article but told the Albuquerque Journal last week that the American Civil Liberties Union will represent him in the case. "Their response to that is to try to intimidate me. I think that that's the kind of behavior that a citizen needs to stand up against."
In the next year, state officials must approve a local entity to oversee the project known as a New Mexico Central Arizona Project entity -- the Gila San Francisco Water Commission is a likely candidate -- and the proposal must also undergo a series of federal studies that will stretch over five years, including a National Environmental Policy Act review.
Recalling the failures of earlier projects that faced difficulties over the Endangered Species Act as well as budgetary issues, Salmon said he believes that long window could magnify similar problems in the newest iteration: "The whole program could unravel in the next year or two; that's my hope."
But many opponents of the diversion project see another hope: the governor herself.
Martinez has remained all but silent on the subject -- while the ISC serves at the governor's behest, she has made no public comments on the diversion -- and her office did not return a request for comment. Martinez was scheduled to speak at last month's WGA drought forum but canceled her appearance due to an illness.
According to Audubon New Mexico's Wirth, the governor has been inundated with nearly 22,000 appeals, the number of signatures on a variety of petitions to date, to put an end to the project and focus on alternatives.
The New Mexico Wildlife Federation has likewise run a series of online ads on state media websites targeting the governor and focused on how the project will be funded.
"We're not saying don't dam it and don't do anything because it's a pristine place that shouldn't be touched," said New Mexico Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Michelle Briscoe. "We're saying put the $80 million into some legitimate infrastructure."
She later added, "But the clock is ticking, and they are hemorrhaging money that could be used on this."