BUYING A GILA MONSTER

FARMERS IN THE GILA RIVER BASIN HAVE ALREADY SUCKED DOWN $500 MILLION IN GOVERNMENT PORK. NOW THEY WANT ANOTHER $20 MILLION FOR A SENSELESS FLOOD-CONTROL PROJECT.

"The natural processes will take care of everything if you just let them," says Game and Fish biologist Bill Werner.

Even Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district officials, who typically view the Gila River as nothing more than a nuisance, realize the rareness of this ecological moment.

"We never have had an opportunity like we do now to put more riparian values back into the valley," says Herb Guenther, a member of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.

Even as he makes such statements, however, Guenther supports a project that would likely destroy most of the river's new habitat.

Herb Guenther has a job outside the Game and Fish Commission. He is also an administrative assistant for the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district. With Guenther's wholehearted support, the district is planning a massive channelization project in the Gila River that will wipe out more than 2,000 acres of streamside habitat. The irrigation district is seeking quick approval for construction of the project from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The channel will cost state and federal taxpayers anywhere from $18 million to $54 million, depending on final design.

The irrigation district wants approval of the project before another flood comes down the Gila River and inundates farms in its flood plain. The district's haste is reflected in its economic and environmental reports, which have been so sketchy that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding that a formal Environmental Impact Statement be prepared.

So far, Wellton-Mohawk officials have been able to narrow debate on the channelization project as an issue stemming solely from the 1993 flood that will simply restore a previous $8 million channel system that was damaged in last year's flood.

That narrow focus has ignored the district's long-standing drainage problems, and $500 million in taxpayer subsidies.

Even worse, according to EPA, is the lack of a significant discussion of channelization alternatives, including the purchase of farmland in the Gila's immediate flood plain.

Rather than researching alternatives, the irrigation district has been promoting the channel project by building on the myth that the 1993 flood destroyed tens of millions of dollars of crops in the Gila basin and inflicted long-term damage to the land.

Neither assertion is true.

When the 1993 flood began to recede into the Gila River, Wellton-Mohawk farmers actually rebounded very quickly.

"They got back into production pretty doggone quick," says Don Howell, the Yuma County agricultural extension agent.

In fact, most of the fields that were covered by the flood suffered minor damage, Killman says.

Severe damage was limited to lands that fell directly in the path of the river as it jumped from one channel to another. Killman says the district permanently lost about 1,900 acres of farmland to severe flood damage. In the days following the heaviest flows, however, Arizona Farm Bureau President Ken Evans told news media that flooding in the Wellton-Mohawk district would reduce the state's crop output by $250 million over the next two or three years.

"It could be the death knell for some of these communities," Evans, a Yuma-area farmer, said.

Evan's dire crop forecast was grossly overblown. The district's crop-production records show farmers produced $106 million worth of crops in the 1993 flood year, down slightly from $107 million in 1992. After predicting widespread hardships for the entire irrigation district, farmers designed a game plan to once again tap taxpayers for tens of millions of dollars in disaster relief and flood prevention funds. The district already has received $24 million in state and federal funds for flood-fighting efforts, and for repairs to irrigation canals, bridges, power lines and roads in the Gila River flood plain. Another $10 million is expected to be spent in the near future.

The channelization project will add at least $20 million more to the taxpayer tab. Unless a lone environmental bureaucrat stays in the way.

Ed Yates is not a popular fellow down in the Wellton-Mohawk Valley, an otherwise friendly place where locals wave to every passing car and small children can ride bikes to the Circle K without worrying their parents to death.

Yates, an EPA official in San Francisco, has all but single-handedly held up the district's channelization project for several months. His sharp criticisms of the project are providing powerful ammunition to environmentalists, who are poised to file suit to block the project.

The delay is critical to farmers along the Gila River. The channelization project will take eight months to build. Unless it is built, farmers could be exposed to flood damage from even fairly moderate flows down the river.

Guenther is infuriated by EPA's claim that the district has failed to consider alternatives to building the channel.

"EPA came in late to the project and then said we don't agree with anything you're doing," Guenther says. "I gave up on Yates months ago."

Yates says EPA only wants the irrigation district to be thorough.
"A project that affects over 2,000 acres of riparian habitat, especially one in a desert ecosystem, is a project that should be very thoroughly examined to determine how to avoid environmental impacts, as well as reducing environmental impacts," Yates says.

EPA's objections are based on recommendations prepared by the Clinton administration in the aftermath of massive flooding on the Mississippi River. The administration concluded it is cheaper and more environmentally sound to acquire acreage that flooding rivers inundate, rather than building expensive flood-control dikes to contain the flooding.

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