Environmentalists fighting to restore a stretch of the lower Gila River to its historic biological splendor have found an unlikely ally in the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In a surprising policy shift, FEMA on August 18 notified a politically powerful irrigation district near Yuma that it will not fund a controversial flood-control project along 56 miles of the Gila River.

Not only is FEMA refusing to pay at least $30 million to build a flood-control channel, the agency has notified the Wellton-Mohawk Drainage and Irrigation District that it is reevaluating another $10 million in payments already approved.

The district's old, $8 million flood-control system was partially destroyed by a 1993 flood. That stretch of the Gila was later declared a federal disaster area. The district expected FEMA to pay 75 percent of the cost of replacing old dikes and levies. If FEMA had funded the project, the state would have covered another 15 percent of the project's expenses, leaving the district itself responsible for only 10 percent.

Environmentalists hope the federal-fund cutoff will stop construction of the project, which they fear would destroy a diverse riparian habitat that miraculously emerged along the banks of the Gila River after the 1993 flood.

Most of Arizona's native riverbanks have been destroyed by development, mining, cattle grazing and agriculture during the past 100 years. The post-flood reemergence of cottonwoods and willows along the lower Gila River is touted as proof that Arizona can reforest its riverbanks if nature is allowed to work and desert rivers are given the opportunity to flow and occasionally flood.

Hundreds of acres of cottonwoods and willows sprouted and have rapidly grown along the lower Gila in the wake of the flood. The habitat is expected to benefit wildlife, particularly endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn antelope.

The irrigation district, however, wants to prevent future flooding along the Gila with a channel that would contain flows of up to 10,000 cubic feet per second. The 1993 flood exceeded 25,000 cfs and flooded more than one-third of the district's 50,000 acres of farmland.

The irrigation district obtained a construction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last spring to begin building the flood-control project. The corps concluded that the project would not have a significant impact on the environment and that a detailed and expensive Environmental Impact Statement wasn't required.

Environmentalists--led by Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility--sued the corps in May, claiming an EIS is necessary before a construction permit can be issued. The suit is pending in federal court.

Environmentalists also notified FEMA that the agency would be sued if it released funds to Wellton-Mohawk before an EIS had been prepared.

However, FEMA's decision to deny funding to the district was not based on environmental concerns. Instead, FEMA simply told the district that the flood-control project was outside FEMA's mandate. If the district wants federal funds, FEMA recommended it ask the Corps of Engineers.

Corps officials in Los Angeles say Congress would have to approve funding for the Wellton-Mohawk project.

FEMA's decision not to fund the Wellton-Mohawk flood-control project shocked state disaster officials and left district employees livid.

"It's bizarre at best and totally irresponsible," says irrigation district assistant director Herb Guenther.

Guenther, a former state legislator, vows that the district will press on with construction of the project even if the district has to pay all the costs and use its own employees rather than contracting out the work.

"We can do it all in-house; it's just going to take a lot longer," Guenther says. "We will do what is necessary to protect the district."
The district already has begun bulldozing stands of cottonwoods and willows in a densely forested area near the town of Tacna. Two 50-foot-wide clearings for levies extending hundreds of yards slice through the trees.

Environmentalists are demanding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the corps order the irrigation district to immediately stop destroying riparian areas and halt construction until their lawsuit challenging the permit is settled.

Eric Ames, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos, New Mexico, says the district's permit to construct the project is invalid because FEMA has withdrawn the funding for the entire project.

Without FEMA's money, which Ames says could total more than $70 million, it is unlikely that the district will meet all the conditions of the corps permit, including mitigation to replace more 1,500 acres of riparian habitat that will be destroyed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, appears reluctant to throw a wrench in the irrigation district's project.

"As far as we are concerned they have got their permit from the corps and they are going to be implementing the conditions of the permit," says Don Metz, coordinator for federal activities for the Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in Phoenix.

If the work is not halted, the environmental groups likely will seek a temporary restraining order preventing the district from doing further work.

FEMA's decision not only has shaken up the irrigation district, it has sent shockwaves through Arizona's entire emergency response system.

Michael Austin, director of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, says FEMA's decision not to fund the Wellton-Mohawk project appears to stem from congressional pressure to reduce disaster spending.

"This will have a serious impact on our ability to respond quickly and recover from disasters. It could pose a significant impact to the economy," Austin says.

The Wellton-Mohawk district is no stranger to controversy. The federal government has spent more than $600 million in the past 40 years building infrastructure and providing irrigation water from the Colorado River to fewer than 150 farmers who cultivate land that lies almost entirely within the historic Gila River flood plain ("Taming a Gila Monster," November 24, 1994).

The rich soils, extensive sunshine and controlled watering allow farmers to produce more than $100 million worth of crops a year-- primarily vegetables, wheat, cotton and citrus. The district is a major source of the nation's winter vegetables.

Wellton-Mohawk's desert farmers look at the Gila River as an enemy to be tamed. Most of the time, the Gila is reined in by Coolidge Dam east of Phoenix and Painted Rock Dam west of Gila Bend. But in the spring of 1993, record rainfall throughout the state swelled scores of streams and rivers, most of which spill into the Gila. Painted Rock Reservoir grew into the largest lake in the state in early 1993. In March, water topped the dam's spillway, sending a torrent down the river toward the Wellton-Mohawk district and Yuma.

While the flood disrupted production in some areas of the district, the value of crops shipped in 1993 remained near average, exceeding $100 million.

Environmentalists believe the district can continue to farm without constructing extensive levies and channeling the river.

"This section of the Gila River can economically be restored to a functioning riparian ecosystem and that opportunity should not be squandered on a flood-control boondoggle such as this one," says Greg Sater, an attorney representing Defenders of Wildlife in the federal lawsuit.

District officials scoff at Sater's assessment and intend to move forward with the project. They also intend to ask Arizona's congressional delegation to pressure FEMA to reverse its decision.

"FEMA has funded numerous flood-control facilities throughout the state," Guenther says. "We don't feel like we are any different from anybody else that manages public facilities that were destroyed by that disaster.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty