Around NM: Springtime highs, Water Project Fund, dropping oil prices and more

Happy First Day of Spring! It’s hot out there. Record hot, in fact. On Sunday, the Albuquerque Sunport hit 80 degrees—making it the 3rd earliest 80-degree day for that location’s recorded history. This morning, the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque said those above normal high temperatures will continue in central and eastern New Mexico—and that the winds will return, too.

Bill for oversight of Gila diversion project dies in committee

A bill related to the proposed diversion on the Gila River has effectively died. The Senate Finance Committee tabled the bill Monday night and asked the bill’s supporters and opponents to resolve the issues on their own, without changing the law. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 340, which would have required additional oversight of the federal money New Mexico receives to plan and build the diversion. Had the bill passed, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) would have been required to answer specific questions before paying out more money for attorneys, engineers and consultants.

Around NM: Unspent money, wildfires, Gila update and more

Today, the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor released information about unspent funds in various state accounts. A quick read of the report shows that New Mexico isn’t spending all it has available on environment and water projects. According to the report, New Mexico has $512 million in unspent water-related infrastructure funding. The office points out that despite increasing needs around the state, “water-related infrastructure funds continue to accumulate faster than they can get out the door.”

The state also has $43 million in “stagnant funds” that haven’t been used the last two years according to the State Auditor. Among the largest of those 39 funds?

Gila spending bill clears committee

A bill to increase spending oversight on a proposed diversion on the Gila River passed the Senate Conservation Committee this morning—and will head next to the Senate floor. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 340, which would require the Interstate Stream Commission’s spending on the Gila River diversion to go through the normal legislative budget process. Before putting more money toward the project, officials would need to show the project is technically feasible, explain how much water is available from the river and who would use it, estimate the project’s price tag and determine how New Mexico will cover the difference between the federal subsidy and the project’s actual cost. The bill passed the committee, though four objected to the pass including Republican Sens.

Bill would provide oversight on Gila diversion spending

When it comes to New Mexico’s proposed diversion on the Gila River, even discussions about routine financial reporting elicit passionate disagreements. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced a bill that would increase oversight of spending by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission on the diversion. During his presentation to the Senate Conservation Committee Thursday, Rue explained that the bill focuses on the process of how ISC spends federal money. “We are not here to make a judgement about the diversion,” he said.

After U.S. Senator’s request, ISC releases previously-withheld data

Last month, NM Political Report wrote about how a one-sentence provision in state law emboldened an agency to keep one citizen from obtaining public information. In December, retired Interstate Stream Commission Director Norman Gaume asked his former agency for an unlocked copy of an Excel spreadsheet showing how much water is diverted from and used along the Gila River and its tributaries each year. The agency’s questionable actions against Gaume drew the attention of one of New Mexico’s U.S. Senator, and a state representative who introduced a bill to make a slight wording change to the state’s open records law. Over the past few years, Gaume has opposed the state’s plans to build a diversion along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. With an unlocked copy of the spreadsheet, he could examine the formulas and original data within the spreadsheet.

The ‘politics’ of wrangling data on the Gila

A one-sentence provision in state law is emboldening at least one agency to keep public information from seeing the light of day. All officials have to do is accuse someone of having a political agenda. For more than a year, retired Interstate Stream Commission director Norman Gaume has wanted to know how much water farmers and others currently draw from the Gila River. That’s where the state plans to build a controversial new project that would divert more water from the river. Specifically, he wondered if water users are using the maximum amount of water they’re already allotted from the river.

Billion dollar Gila diversion off the table

This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAPE, directed its engineering contractor to continue studying only those projects that would cost $80-100 million to build. That’s how much funding New Mexico anticipates receiving from the federal government to develop water from the Gila and perhaps its tributary, the San Francisco River. This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.

Decision due on controversial Gila diversion

SANTA FE, N.M. – Conservation groups fighting a plan to divert large amounts of water from the Gila River in New Mexico say today is the deadline for the federal government to green light the plan. The project would cut a significant amount of water from the river that normally flows into Arizona. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to announce whether funds will be allocated for the project. It would divert some 14,000-acre feet of water annually, and pump it over the Continental Divide to southern New Mexico. Staci Stevens, communications manager for the Audubon New Mexico, says the environmental impact statement and other studies for the project will have to clear some high hurdles.

Everywhere is a Gila

Hakim Bellamy is the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, a position which he held from 2012 to 2014. Originating in America’s first designated wilderness area — a protection inspired by Aldo Leopold — New Mexico’s Gila River is a mainstay for the region’s recreation economy and a biological gem whose riparian forests boast one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in the country. But it’s now at risk from a billion-dollar diversion project. After three failed attempts to dam and divert this still-wild river, developers are hoping the fourth time’s a charm. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has until November 23 to decide whether to allow the project to go through.