March 14, 2017

Bill for oversight of Gila diversion project dies in committee

Laura Paskus

The Gila River downstream of the proposed diversion area.

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. Officials would have needed to show the project is technically feasible, explained how much water is available from the river and who would use it, estimated the project’s price tag and determined how New Mexico will cover the difference between the federal subsidy and the project’s actual cost.

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“We were just asking basic, simple questions that we would ask of any other water projects,” said Morales the day after the vote. “I don’t think it was too much to ask to request that the feasibility [of the diversion] be proven. The bill was never intended to obstruct any programs.”

In 2004, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which gave the state of New Mexico 10 years to decide how to use federal money to meet water needs in four rural counties in southwestern New Mexico. The state could pursue efficiency and restoration projects or receive a larger subsidy and build a diversion on the Gila River.

In November 2014, the ISC voted to pursue the diversion, which was the more expensive option.

Since then, the ISC and a newly formed group, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity, have struggled to come up with solid plans.

Morales pointed out that with a few days left in the session, time is against the bill’s sponsors.

“But the discussion does need to continue,” he said, adding that he was pleased that the executive director of the CAP Entity reached out to him after last night’s meeting.

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At Monday night’s meeting, ISC and CAP Entity officials called the bill a roadblock that would prevent the state from receiving its full federal subsidy.

To receive that federal money, the state must complete an Environmental Impact Statement in 2019, in time for the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to issue a final decision on the project by the end of 2019.

The CAP Entity’s attorney, Pete Domenici, Jr., said the bill represented a “huge, insurmountable obstacle of local entities getting that money.”

He also said the bill was not about transparency.

“We are 100 percent in favor of transparency,” he said. “But we don’t want roadblocks put [before] this project that are going to deprive southwest New Mexico of money and water.”

He said the bill’s sponsors were “overreaching” by requiring the agency to answer certain questions before receiving additional funding.

ISC Director Deborah Dixon said that if passed, the bill would delay the state’s process and its ability to meet deadlines required under the Arizona Water Settlements Act.

Dixon pointed out that both the ISC and the CAP Entity have met all their previous deadlines, including one to provide the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation a diversion plan and location by July 2016.

After spending nearly 12 years and millions of dollars on the project, in July the CAP Entity sent Reclamation a letter outlining their plans. That letter, which included two pages of text plus four maps, outlined ideas for the project. But it remains unclear if those plans and locations have been finalized, or are feasible.

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On the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s website, the federal agency outlines a schedule for the project. According to that schedule, the state should now be conducting public scoping for the project. Work on the draft Environmental Impact Statement should occur from summer 2017 through summer 2018.

Diversion opponent Allyson Siwik was disappointed by the committee’s move.

“I think it’s pretty shocking that [officials] are basically saying, ‘We’ve spent all this money, and more than 10 years,’ and they still can’t answer these fundamental questions,” said Siwik, who is executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “These questions shouldn’t be that hard for them to answer.”