By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Just a couple of miles north of Interstate 8, where the freeway cuts through some of southwest Arizona's harshest desert, lies a narrow ribbon of riverfront property that is one of the most productive farming areas in the world.
A relatively few farmers there--perhaps 125--like to brag that they can produce two, and sometimes three, crops a year, under nearly perfect growing conditions provided by sunny skies and the rich soils found in the flood plain of the Gila River.
A less popular line of conversation in the towns of Wellton, Tacna and Mohawk involves the cost to American taxpayers of keeping these farmers in business.
Without a steady influx of federal subsidies, there wouldn't be much in the way of farming in the lower Gila River basin of southwest Arizona. After World War II, the federal government formed the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district to provide Colorado River water to farmland that ex-GIs could work. Ever since, the district has used political relationships to keep the federal money flowing, even when the Gila River isn't.
The sheer volume of money spent to benefit the district is staggering. It tops $500 million.
Most of the money has been spent in a convoluted effort to solve drainage and salinity problems that plague irrigated desert agriculture.
Now, after a half-billion dollars in government subsidies has been largely squandered, the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District wants another handout.
District officials say the Gila River needs to be channelized, to protect farmers from occasional floods. The district hasn't come up with a firm cost for the project, saying it could range from $20 million to $60 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers favor the channelization.
Even though the project appears to fly in the face of new federal policies on flood management that discourage development in flood-prone areas. Even though the channel would fail if a flood less than half the size of Arizona's 1993 torrent comes down the Gila.
And even though the channelization would devastate an emerging ecosystem not seen on Arizona's desert rivers for decades.
Few political subdivisions have mastered the art of sopping up federal subsidies as completely as the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district. What the district has managed to obtain in the past provides a glimpse of what it expects in the future.
The first of the federal outlays involved the $56 million Wellton-Mohawk canal system, completed in 1952. The system provided Colorado River water to the irrigation district.
At the same time, the federal government awarded the Wellton-Mohawk district the rights to 300,000 acre-feet of water each year--free. (An acre-foot of water can easily support an urban family of five for a year.) Later, the government agreed to buy some of those rights back--at $1,000 an acre-foot.
Ten years after the Colorado River water began flowing across the Wellton-Mohawk farms, a crisis surfaced--literally. The water table beneath the district farms rose as a result of irrigation; salt built up in the soils, wrecking crop production. The federal government was happy to throw money at this problem, too.
A series of wells was installed across the district to suck down the groundwater level; this process drained salts from the topsoil. Powered by subsidized electricity from the bureau's hydroelectric dams on the Colorado River, the pumps run 24 hours a day. That salty groundwater was dumped into a $45 million drainage canal, also built at government expense. The drainage canal transported the salty water back to the Colorado River, where it was dumped just above the Mexican border--only to cause another problem.
The Mexican government claimed that salty water from the Wellton-Mohawk district was fouling the Colorado River and wrecking Mexican crops.
An interim solution was reached. The district's drainage canal would be extended from the Colorado River into Mexico, at government cost, all the way to the Colorado River delta, where the water was dumped onto a salt flat.
Still, under a 1944 treaty, the U.S. needed to put additional usable water into the Colorado.
None of the U.S. Colorado River users was willing to give up a share of the water. So the bureau "created" the water, lining the Coachella Canal in California. The concrete lining reduced seepage, allowing the bureau to reallocate enough nonsalty water to the Colorado to keep Mexico happy. The bureau also purchased thousands of acres of farmland from the Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district, hoping to reduce its salty drainage flows.
But this $200 million-plus solution was only temporary. As soon as water demands along the Colorado River increase, the extra flow from the Coachella Canal will revert to California.
An attempt at permanent solution to the Wellton-Mohawk drainage problem was developed in 1973. It makes the previous Gila irrigation boondoggles look like money well-spent.
The Bureau of Reclamation embarked on a plan to build the world's largest desalination plant just to clean up Wellton-Mohawk irrigation drainage.
The cost of the plant, located five miles west of Yuma, soared fivefold above original estimates. By the time it was completed in 1991, the cost had reached $256 million. And that is not the only cost.
Wellton-Mohawk farmers pay just $12.50 an acre-foot in electricity costs to apply Colorado River water to their fields. Later, that water is pumped from the ground and sent to the desalination plant. When the plant is running at full capacity, removing salt from an acre-foot of water costs $262.
The desalted water is then unceremoniously dumped back into the Colorado River for delivery to Mexico. It's dumped, that is, when the plant is operating.
The plant, which critics say was obsolete by the time it opened its doors, ran for only nine months before it was shut down by the 1993 Gila River flood. The Clinton administration is opposed to restarting the plant because of high operating expenses.
In the meantime, the Wellton-Mohawk district continues to dump its drainage water into the Colorado River delta in Mexico.
In January 1993, five severe winter storms swept across northern and central Arizona, dropping record rainfall and snow on a 50,000-square-mile watershed drained by the Gila River.
The Gila runs the width of Arizona, receiving flows from the San Francisco, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Salt, Verde, Agua Fria and Hassayampa rivers on its way to its confluence with the Colorado River north of Yuma.
By January 10, flows into Painted Rock Dam on the Gila River reached a record 204,000 cubic feet per second. The dam, located 20 miles west of Gila Bend, soon backed up the largest lake in Arizona, more than twice the size of Roosevelt Lake.
"You could stand at the dam and look out at the horizon and see nothing but water," recalls Joe Dixon of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The flood waters crashing down the Gila already had ripped a hole through Gillespie Dam 30 miles upstream, and were now threatening to go over the top of Painted Rock.
Fifty miles downstream, farmers and irrigation workers, assisted by the National Guard, were bracing for the flood that was sure to come. Thousands of tons of rock were added to levees to protect three essential pumping plants at the Wellton-Mohawk district.
For nearly two months, the district worked around the clock shoring up the river's levee system under the eye of Larry Killman, the district's superintendent of river operations.
Killman had been responsible for an $8 million channel and levee project since 1986. It had almost been completed when the flood waters hit.
But these floods dwarfed any Gila River flow since 1960.
"It was a beautiful, sunny day when the flood peaked," Killman says, describing that day in early March 1993 when 26,000 cubic feet of water roared through the Gila each second. The Wellton-Mohawk's levees and channels were designed to handle less than half that much water.
For months--until December, in fact--the Gila River danced in its reclaimed flood plain, inundating at times up to 16,000 acres of low-lying Wellton-Mohawk farm fields. The river destroyed a handful of cottonwood and willow stands that the Game and Fish Department and the irrigation district had nurtured over the years. At the same time, the river's power to create new habitats was clearly displayed in an area now dubbed Growler Ponds, near the eastern end of the irrigation district.
There, the water began crashing into the north bank of the river channel, gradually carving into the bank and digging a deep hole in the river bottom. After several days of excavation, the river suddenly shifted its main flow to the west, leaving behind a series of deep ponds.
In the last year, a cattail marsh has emerged on the edges of the ponds, attracting an array of wildlife that includes egrets, herons and ospreys. The depth of the ponds ensures an inflow of groundwater, keeping the area a wetland, even though flows in the Gila have slowed to a trickle.
On another part of the riverbank, John Kennedy (no relation to the former president) surveys a dense tree line for an opening before easing into a thick understory of sticky salt cedar, pushing aside branches of the evergreen with wide, sweeping motions of his arms.
Ten yards into the thicket, the Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager stops, placing his hand around the five-inch-diameter trunk of a cottonwood sapling. It towers 20 feet above the salt-cedar thicket. "There hasn't been anything like this in decades," Kennedy says, smiling at the vigorous growth displayed by the yearling cottonwood.
The cottonwood in Kennedy's grasp isn't alone. There are a hundred more cottonwoods sprouting from what had been a farm field on the south bank of the lower Gila River, 45 miles east of Yuma. Nearby, another field boasts an equally prodigious number of young and hearty willow trees.
Kennedy can't believe what he's seen emerge from the fertile Gila River flood plain. For the first time in memory, Kennedy says there is the potential for regeneration of a desert river ecosystem in Arizona.
"I know we haven't seen anything like this in more than 30 years on the lower Gila River," he says.
The ebb and flow of streamside habitat along a flowing desert river is a natural phenomenon. The river's power to destroy habitat is countered by its ability to create ideal conditions for new riparian areas to appear.
The Game and Fish Department has spent millions of dollars over the last decade trying to encourage the development of cottonwood and willow forests along the lower Gila through plantings. These efforts have largely been failures.
The 1993 flood did what the best efforts of the department couldn't do. The Gila created the perfect conditions for a streamside habitat.
"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.
"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.