June 18, 2019

It’s time to end the Gila diversion boondoggle

Laura Paskus

The Gila River downstream of the proposed diversion area.

This coming Thursday, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) will vote on whether to spend an additional $1.8 million to continue plans to dam the upper Gila and San Francisco Rivers. That is on top of the $15 million they have already spent.  It is far past time to scrap this doomed plan to remove water from the Gila and to instead pursue the conservation efforts we know can preserve and create access to the water we so desperately need.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.

The Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) of 2004 gave the State of New Mexico $66 million in federal funds in exchange for the development of water downstream from the Gila in the larger Colorado River watershed. By law, this money can either pay for critical water supply improvement and efficiency projects or fund a major dam, reservoir, and delivery project on the upper Gila River. Since 2014, under the previous administration’s appointees—many of whom still sit on the commission today—the ISC has squandered $15 million of that money and we can never get it back.

It is irresponsible to continue throwing away millions of dollars studying wasteful diversion projects that would dewater the upper Gila River in New Mexico. Once federal funds run out, the only people left on the hook for paying for this will be New Mexico taxpayers and water users. 

Earlier this year, Governor Lujan Grisham vetoed spending any further money from the State’s budget on studies for Gila diversion proposals. She has repeatedly registered her informed opposition to diversion. It’s time for the ISC to follow her lead.

Simply put, no diversion proposals have come close to demonstrating engineering, economic, or ecological viability.  The most recent diversion proposal would not support increasing irrigated acreage in the region. Any diverted water would be much more expensive than what current water users pay for already existing supplies—$500 per acre-foot instead of the current local rate of less than $7 per acre-foot. The estimated construction costs are also well beyond the resources available, meaning New Mexicans will be asked to pay more. Even after scaling back from the most outlandish diversion proposals, the remaining available options for diversion still prove too wasteful and costly to justify. 

Additionally, any major diversion project would threaten the natural upper Gila River and tributaries like the San Francisco. Local communities, farmers, and ranchers throughout southwestern New Mexico depend on the greater Gila-San Francisco watershed to recharge their aquifers and groundwater supplies. And recreation tourism, which brings significant dollars to local businesses throughout southwestern New Mexico, relies on a healthy Gila River.

The upper Gila is the last free flowing river in the American Southwest. The river is the heart of the Gila National Forest and the Gila Wilderness—America’s first wilderness. Because of the Gila’s natural flooding regime, the river’s floodplain is dominated by an amazing gallery forest of native cottonwoods and white-trunked Arizona Sycamores towering over riparian willows. Many species of plants, fish, birds, and other animals rely on this natural hydrology.

When better, data-driven conservation alternatives exist, it’s careless to continue throwing away millions of dollars studying a diversion project when we could be investing in projects that will yield real water at an affordable price. Watershed restoration, regional water supply and delivery projects, efficiency improvements, water conservation measures, and improvements to irrigation infrastructure will do far more to sustain future water needs in southwestern New Mexico.

It has become abundantly clear that we should stop lining the pockets of contracting firms and throwing our limited amount of federal funding down the drain. Let’s relegate these fruitless and destructive Gila diversion proposals to the history books and put the rest of our federal money from the AWSA to work on more realistic and practical water infrastructure projects that we know will work.

Martin Heinrich is a Democratic U.S. Senator who has represented New Mexico since 2013.