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.
On Monday, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted to amend an engineering contract for the proposed Gila River diversion. The change was necessary because the company’s earlier work, done at the direction of the state and the entity planning the diversion, didn’t take into account crucial information. The ISC and the New Mexico Central Arizona (CAP) Entity has been moving diversions plans forward, even though the proposed infrastructure would cross lands owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state of New Mexico. Last week, the CAP Entity’s board of directors confirmed their latest plans weren’t going to work, and voted on a new scope of work for the engineering company, AECOM. According to a presentation by ISC Gila Basin Manager Ali Effati, the cost of the revised tasks and deletion of former tasks will offset each other.
If you haven’t gone out to look at the Rio Grande, no matter where along its banks you live, now’s the time. The snowmelt is pouring down the channel, causing the river to overbank in lots of places throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In southern New Mexico, the normally dry channel is also running as water managers are moving water from reservoirs to southern New Mexico fields and orchards and to Texas. Speaking of snowmelt, March was an exceptionally warm month in New Mexico. According to the National Weather Service, 143 record-high temperatures were broken across 34 weather stations on 15 days.