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.

"We think these recommendations are pertinent to the Wellton-Mohawk project," says Yates.

EPA also continues to insist, as it has since last July, that the Wellton-Mohawk district prepare a formal Environmental Impact Statement for the channelization project.

EPA objections have clearly slowed down the Corps of Engineers' plan to issue a permit for the project by the end of October. Federal wildlife officials close to the project say it is unlikely the Corps will go forward over EPA objections.

EPA concerns also are playing havoc with the money the irrigation district hopes to obtain from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Emergency Management Agency to pay for the project. The federal government is expected to pay 75 percent, while the state kicks in 15 percent of the tab. The district would cover the balance.

The state and federal money can only be cut loose as long as the irrigation district has met necessary environmental requirements.

One Phoenix-based environmental group has already notified the district it intends to file a lawsuit if a permit for the channelization project is issued without an Environmental Impact Statement.

"There are not many areas in the Southwest where we can actually recover some of the 95 percent of the natural river habitat we have lost," says Robin Silver, conservation chairman of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "This is one of those areas."

Of late, however, the state Game and Fish Department has initiated a counterattack against EPA and in favor of the channel project. The department and the district claim that the channelization plan includes provisions that would improve the natural habitat along the Gila.

Those provisions include the creation of backwater areas that would support wildlife, and the purchase of 1,900 acres of former farmland, some of which includes areas packed with robust cottonwoods and willows produced by the 1993 flood. Supporters of the channelization claim that if it is not completed, the irrigation district will simply rebuild the levee system damaged in 1993.

If that occurs, many of the farm fields now growing cottonwoods and willows will go back into crop production.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," says Larry Voyles of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "I want to make damn sure these fields don't go back into production."

It is unclear whether the Game and Fish Department's posture is reflective of environmental conviction or pork-barrel politics. Critics wonder what role Guenther, as a Game and Fish commissioner, is playing in the battle between the state and EPA.

"This project is being pushed by a man who clearly should not be a Game and Fish commissioner," environmentalist Silver says.

But fellow Game and Fish commissioners say they don't see any conflict of interest between Guenther's simultaneous positions at Game and Fish and the irrigation district.

Guenther also dismisses the apparent conflict.
"If this project doesn't stand on its own merits, it doesn't deserve to go," he says. "I think it does."

While the Wellton-Mohawk channelization project appears to afford some benefits to wildlife, one fact remains: An important--perhaps the best--alternative to the project is not being seriously considered.

Even as EPA raised its objections to the project, a proposal to buy out a portion of the district's farmland was making waves in Washington, D.C.

In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power, former Colorado water commissioner David H. Getches suggested last June that the most efficient solution to the long-term salinity problem in the Colorado River was to buy out portions of the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district.

"Retiring Wellton-Mohawk lands was always the cheapest, simplest and most obvious way to reduce salinity of water delivered to Mexico under our treaty obligation," Getches said.

Getches' proposal raises the possibility that the federal government could solve several problems at once by purchasing a portion of the irrigation district's land, taking it out of production.

The purchase of a wider flood plain for the lower Gila would not just reduce salinity in the Colorado; it also might eliminate the need for an expensive flood-control channel to protect the remaining Wellton-Mohawk farmers.

And the cost of such a purchase would have to pale in comparison to the $500 million the government has spent encouraging the irrigation, the draining, the salting and the desalination of the lower Gila River basin.

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