June 12, 2018

More than a year behind schedule, agencies initiate environmental analysis of Gila River diversion

Laura Paskus

The Gila River downstream of the proposed diversion area.

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.

Normally 30 days, the public comment period ends on July 20, allowing for extra time given the July 4 holiday. Eight public meetings are tentatively scheduled for Albuquerque, Silver City, Cliff-Gila and Glenwood, New Mexico, as well as Duncan, Safford, Maricopa and San Carlos, Arizona during the month of July.

The project is now on a tight schedule. To receive the full federal subsidy for the diversion, New Mexico must complete the EIS in 2019, in time for the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to issue a Record of Decision on it by the end of 2019.

The 2019 deadline can be extended, but only if New Mexico proves it was not responsible for the delays.

For three years, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity struggled to meet deadlines and propose a design and location for the diversion. The ISC handed off authority for designing, managing and operating the diversion to the quasi-governmental organization in 2015.

Under the original timeline for the project, the scoping period beginning today should have started in the winter of 2016/2017, and the draft EIS was scheduled for release this summer.

In 2004, Congress gave New Mexico ten years to decide: The state could meet water needs in Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties by tapping a federal subsidy for conservation and efficiency projects, or receive a larger subsidy and build a diversion on the Gila River. In 2014, with just one dissenting vote, the ISC chose the diversion option, and triggered the new deadlines.

To read all of our coverage of the Gila River diversion, visit https://nmpoliticalreport.com/tag/gila-river/