January 3, 2020

DOI denies funding for Gila River diversion project

Laura Paskus

Gila River near Turkey Creek in New Mexico

The U.S. Department of Interior dealt a major blow to the Gila River diversion project last month. The New Mexico Central Arizona Project (NMCAP) Entity will have to find new funds for the proposal after the DOI denied a request for an extension for a funding application.

The NMCAP Entity requested an extension on the deadline for filing documents to support its application for up to $56 million in construction funding for the project that’s available under the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004. The NMCAP Entity had until the end of December 2019 to complete the necessary environment impact statements and receive a federal Record of Decision. It has spent $17 million so far on the project.

But lack of consensus on the parameters of the proposal impeded its progress. Recent revisions to the proposal cut its projected $120 million price tag down to roughly $56 million, but those changes caused delays in completing the environmental impact statements and obtaining a Record of Decision by the deadline.

RELATED: Faced with costs, officials scale back Gila diversion plans

The DOI denied a request filed by the NM CAP Entity for an extension for the proposal on December 20.

“The State of New Mexico has had 15 years since the enactment of the Act to identify a feasible project and obtain a Record of Decision to meet the deadline for the additional funding as defined by the Act,” said DOI Assistant Secretary for water and science Timothy Petty in a letter to NMCAP Entity executive director Anthony Gutierrez. “The slow pace of progress by the State since the passage of the Act shows a lack of urgency and priority by the state for delivering water supplies to rural communities that could be served by the project. Even today, a feasible project with necessary funding and contractual commitments has not been identified to enable project success.”

The controversial proposal has drawn criticism from conservation and environmental groups, as well as much of the state’s congressional delegation and the governor. 

RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall praised the DOI’s decision last month.

“The Gila River is a jewel of New Mexico and deserves to be protected for future generations,” said Udall in a statement. “The Department of Interior made the right decision, as it is clear that the diversion is not feasible. We cannot sacrifice the Gila – and the benefits it provides to our tourism and outdoor recreation economy – to this project. I urge all parties involved to move forward to invest in more cost-effective, high-priority community and agricultural water and restoration projects in southwestern New Mexico.”

“Recreation tourism, which brings significant dollars to local businesses in the region, depends on a healthy Gila River. And local communities, farmers, and ranchers all depend on the greater Gila-San Francisco watershed to recharge their aquifers and groundwater supplies,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Let’s relegate these fruitless and destructive Gila diversion proposals to the history books and put the rest of our federal money from the [Arizona Water Settlement Act] to work on more realistic and practical water infrastructure projects that we know will work.”

Despite the major setback, the Gila River diversion project could still come to fruition. The NMCAP Entity has about $70 million in a separate fund for future Gila diversion and other regional water projects that it may tap for this proposal, according to the Albuquerque Journal. NM Cap Entity is scheduled to hold its first meeting of 2020 on January 7th. 

Read all of our coverage of the Gila River diversion