The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the start of the scoping period for environmental analysis of the Gila River diversion in southwestern New Mexico. In its Federal Register notice Tuesday, Reclamation announced it will work with its co-lead, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), to solicit concerns from landowners who might be affected by the project. The agencies also seek public comment to help identify potential issues and alternatives that should be considered within the environmental impact statement, or EIS. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies must study the environmental, economic, archaeological and cultural impacts of a project, and consider various alternatives to the project. As Reclamation notes on the EIS website, “commenting is not a form of ‘voting’ on an alternative.” In other words, comments should not focus on support or opposition for a project, but provide specific, detailed information about the effects of the project and issues the agencies should consider analyzing within the EIS.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the budget passed earlier this year by state legislators. But she refused to sign a bill that would have reinstated state tax credits for solar. That bill reinstated a tax credit that had expired after a decade, one that had spurred the deployment of 220 million BTUs per day of solar heating energy and 40 megawatts of solar electricity. The tax credit would have given people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. Previously, Martinez has praised the state’s “all of the above” energy resources, but by declining to sign the solar tax credit bill, she effectively vetoed it, but without having to explain why. This week, there’s an interesting water case before the Second District Court, over a private company’s plans to drill for groundwater in the Sandia Mountains.
By a tight vote Tuesday morning, the Senate Conservation Committee passed a water bill—one that represents the latest attempt to control spending on a controversial diversion on the Gila River. Introduced by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Senate Bill 72, would channel federal money earmarked for the diversion toward other water projects in southwestern New Mexico. It would appropriate $50 million toward fully implementing a regional water project in Grant County, other shovel-ready water projects in the area, a groundwater study of the Mimbres Basin aquifer and water planning for the City of Deming. Morales told NM Political Report that he sees passage of the bill as a way to move tens of millions of dollars in federal money in a “responsible way.”
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted in 2014 to build the diversion, ten years after Congress authorized the state to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona. Already, New Mexico has spent more than $13 million of its federal subsidy on studies, engineering plans, and attorneys fees, although the state and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity still lack a firm plan or location for the diversion.
New Mexico legislators tried to understand what’s happening with plans to divert water from the Gila River during a committee meeting earlier this week. While the Senate Conservation Committee will hear related bills later this session, they first requested an update on the project’s plans and a recently issued engineering contract. At its January meeting, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) approved the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity’s request to issue a quarter-million dollars in contracts for the diversion project. One of those contracts, for $150,000, is for Occam Consulting Engineers, Inc.
That company is owned by Scott Verhines, who was appointed State Engineer by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011. As an ISC member, Verhines voted in 2014 to move forward with the diversion rather than use federal money for conservation and efficiency projects in the region.
The big news in New Mexico this week involved the state’s proposed science standards. At a hearing on Monday not one of the hundreds of people who showed up spoke in support of the state’s plans to implement statewide science standards with inadequate information climate change and evolution. Afterwards, the secretary of the Public Education Department announced they would back off some of those changes. It remains to be seen what the state will actually propose now, and how that process will go. But it was heartening to see that newspapers, radio stations, and even TV reporters all showed up to cover science and education this week.
This week, three members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) resigned, including Chairman Caleb Chandler, Jim Wilcox and longtime board member, Jim Dunlap. Earlier this year, ISC Director Deborah Dixon also left. Her departure came shortly after a public disagreement with State Engineer Tom Blaine at an ISC meeting. Update: One of the ex-ISC members told NM Political Report why he quit. The ISC consists of nine commissioners appointed by the governor, including the director of the ISC and the State Engineer.
With a big deadline bearing down in 2019, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or CAP Entity, has yet to choose a plan or exact location for the Gila Diversion. That’s despite already spending more than $12 million of the state’s federal subsidy for the project. At the end of September, AECOM—the engineering firm hired to come up with designs for the CAP Entity to choose from—presented board members with possible design ideas based on the group’s cost and needs. The CAP Entity was then supposed to decide at its October 3 meeting on a plan. Instead, the group punted.
Recently we relaunched our weekly environment wrap-up as an email you can receive once a week. To subscribe, click here. What follows is only an abbreviated version of yesterday’s email. In 2004, Congress gave New Mexico 10 years to decide how to spend federal money on water projects in southwestern New Mexico. The state could pursue efficiency and restoration projects or build a diversion on the Gila River.
New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission employees are flooding out of the agency. The latest was Director Deborah Dixon. Wednesday was her final day. “We appreciate the work Director Dixon did for the agency and we wish her the best in her future endeavors,” the ISC’s public information officer, Melissa Dosher-Smith, wrote in an email to NM Political Report. Neither the agency nor the Office of the Governor have responded to questions if Dixon was let go by Gov. Susana Martinez.
This Sunday, people gathered at a spot along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico to nurture a small habitat restoration project and remember three Silver City teens who died in a plane crash three years ago. The mission of the Butterfly Way, located at The Nature Conservancy’s Gila River Farm, is to enhance the river corridor with native flowers, trees and milkweed that will benefit pollinators, including monarch butterflies. “It’s sort of a community effort to beautify a piece of the floodplain that had been highly hammered and damaged over time by different agricultural land uses,” said Patrice Mutchnick, mother of Ella Jaz Kirk. “We started planting pretty quickly after the kids passed. We drew up a five-year plan how to restore this area, and are using the monarch as the cornerstone of the project.”
At first, it was just family members, but over time, Mutchnick said they’ve invited more neighbors and friends, student groups and community members, to come to the farm.