Better Alternatives Exist to Expensive and Unnecessary Gila River Water Diversion Project

Stacy Tellinghuisen“Our report shows that there are better, significantly cheaper ways to meet the water supply gap than a Gila River diversion. Ratepayers and state taxpayers should not be asked to foot this exorbitant bill when there are less expensive options that provide a reliable future water supply for southwestern New Mexico.”

– said Stacy Tellinghuisen, Senior Energy/Water Policy Analyst

Gila River is a New Mexico Treasure

The Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River, begins in the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. It flows through southern New Mexico and Arizona, supplying water for municipal, agricultural, and industrial needs – and supporting a diverse riparian ecosystem – before joining the Colorado River at Yuma, Arizona.

There are portions of the Gila River that are navigable in the spring and after summer and autumn storms, that provide great kayaking, canoeing and rafting through scenic canyons. Fishing is also popular along the river and in its reservoirs. The river is a ribbon of life in many areas, supporting diverse birds and other wildlife, including endangered species.

The river has been dammed and water diverted to supply five million people, industry and agriculture, with only a small fraction of its historic flows reaching the Colorado River. At certain times every year, portions of the lower river are a trickle or completely dry.

Unnecessary Gila River Diversion Costly to Water Customers or Taxpayers

In 2004, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), legislation that settled some Tribal water rights and Colorado River issues in Arizona. As part of that legislation, Congress allocated funding to support New Mexico’s development of Lower Colorado River water. Specifically, the AWSA allocated funding to four counties in southwestern New Mexico to develop water from the Gila and San Francisco Rivers or to develop “non-diversion” alternatives, such as conservation. A proposed Gila River diversion plan is currently being evaluated and debated in New Mexico. Given the current cost estimates – which likely understate the total final cost – Western Resource Advocates found that the project would likely cost ratepayers who would use the water $710-900 a year. If taxpayers throughout New Mexico funded the costs of the proposed diversion, a more likely scenario, the project would create an estimated fiscal burden of $145 for every man, woman and child in the state.




In 2014, Western Resource Advocates researched and published a report entitled: Filling the Gap: Meeting Future Urban and Rural Water Needs in Southwestern New Mexico. The report shows that the proposed Gila River diversion project, despite a federal subsidy committed under the AWSA, would burden ratepayers in southwestern New Mexico or state taxpayers with over $300 million in capital (construction) costs, as well as additional annual operating costs of over $6 million. If ratepayers covered these costs, the average household’s annual water bill would triple, from an estimated $200 a year to over $670 a year. If the local population grows at a slower rate than anticipated, the average household’s water bill could increase even more. If ratepayers do not pay for the diversion, state taxpayers would likely be asked to cover the capital costs, at an estimated $145 per resident of New Mexico.

Western Resource Advocates’ researchers reviewed population projections published by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and applied per capita water use rates to project future water demand. Researchers then quantified available water supply strategies and currently proposed projects based on published literature and standard practice. For more details on methodology please read the full report and/or contact the lead authors.

Water Conservation and Reuse Are Cheaper, Faster, Smarter Strategies to Meet Community Needs

Western Resource Advocates’ research found that the water supply ‘gap’ between cities’ water supplies and new demands is only 35 acre-feet. For reference, one acre foot of water is 325,851 gallons, the amount of water three families use in one year. Moreover, our research found that this gap can be entirely closed with currently available water conservation practices and strategies. The research also found that adding investments in recycled water, and irrigation water rights that cities already own and plan to convert to municipal use, would provide 7,000 acre-feet of additional water after meeting 2050 demands.

Specific solutions that would support communities and agriculture, while protecting the Gila River:

  • Urban water conservation. Southwest New Mexico’s communities can reduce water demands by an average of 33% through water conservation programs. This would provide 2,370 acre-feet of water per year to meet new demand by 2050, enough water for over 5,000 families a year.
  • Reuse or recycled water. Reuse or recycled water supply projects in southwestern New Mexico could supply approximately 1,090 acre-feet of water per year by 2050, enough water for over 2,000 families a year.
  • Existing water rights. Cities in the region own and plan to transfer agricultural water rights to municipal uses. For example, the City of Deming owns 3,780 acre-feet of irrigation water rights that it intends to convert to municipal use in the future. Even though Deming’s planned transfers do not exemplify the most flexible and innovative strategies, the City of Deming’s water supply plans need to be accounted for in a regional water supply and demand gap assessment.

Reuse and recycling, conservation, and other non-diversion projects can receive funding through the AWSA. Western Resource Advocates has urged the New Mexico Governor’s Interstate Stream Commission, the legislature and the State to meet the southwestern water supply gap by prioritizing water conservation and maximizing the role of reuse. This will save taxpayers money, ensure a strong recreational economy, and protect the Gila River for future generations to enjoy.

Project Staff

Jorge Figueroa

Senior Water Policy Analyst


Stacy Tellinghuisen

Climate Policy Manager