June 19, 2020

After a long battle, the Gila River Diversion project comes to an end

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Laura Paskus

The Gila River downstream of the proposed diversion area.

After 25 years, $16 million dollars, and missing a key deadline, the Gila River Diversion proposal is now effectively dead. The Interstate Stream Commission voted 7-2 Thursday against supplying funding needed to complete an environmental impact statement required for the project.

Critics of the project, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and conservation and environmental groups, cheered the vote. 

“This proposal is actually the fourth proposal to dam the Gila. We hope this is the fourth and last proposal,” Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, told NM Political Report

Siwik boiled down her opposition to the proposal bluntly: “It’s expensive [and] the water is unaffordable.”

The proposal would have seen 14,000 acre-feet of water diverted each year from the Gila River for landowners to use in New Mexico. The state is entitled to that amount of water each year from the river as part of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act. But water managers struggled to find enough funding to leverage the water entitlement.

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

The New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity—a quasi-governmental organization of 14 ditch associations, soil and water conservation districts and municipalities—and four New Mexico counties that were included in the 2004 settlement, identified several diversion projects in its proposal but needed more money to complete them. 

One major problem, Siwik said, was that the state is entitled to that water “only if we replace every drop of water.”

“What’s been said here in New Mexico is ‘that’s our water, don’t let Arizona get our water.’ But it’s not really our water,” she said. “Every acre foot of water that we divert here in New Mexico, we would have to pay to deliver an equivalent amount to the senior water rights holders downstream. Water from the Colorado River would be delivered to those downstream water rights users. We would have to pay for that.”

Last summer, the group decided to scale back its proposal, bringing its price tag down from $120 million to $56 million, with the hopes of supplementing money available under the settlement with federal funds distributed by the Department of Interior. But the group failed to complete the necessary environment impact statement and receive a federal Record of Decision by the December 31, 2019 deadline   

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

The draft environmental impact statement was released in April, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It outlined four possible scenarios for diversion projects though no additional funding had yet been secured. 

Without another source of public funding, the Entity would be forced to take out loans. That, in turn, would further drive up the cost of the water for potential end-users. As the Silver City Daily Press’ Geoffrey Plant writes, the cost of water in each scenario was too high to be considered feasible for landowners. 

Siwik agreed. 

“It’s too expensive for local irrigators, and no irrigators have stepped forward who are willing to pay for the water,” Siwik said. 

The ISC, which is a member of the NMCAP Entity and the group’s fiscal agent, opted to deny further funding to the project needed to complete the final environmental impact statement. Without a completed EIS, the project cannot move forward. 

While opponents to the project sighed a breath of relief after Thursday’s vote, the EIS could still be completed at a later date if the group can find funding for it. There’s also a possibility that the group will respond to the ISC vote with litigation, according to a Silver City Daily Press

There is still roughly $70 million in funding available through the Arizona Water Settlements Act for NMCAP Entity to use on other water projects. Such projects might include the completion of the Grant County Regional Water Supply Project, upgrading water wells and making water system repairs for communities in Deming, Lordsburg and Silver City. 

The ISC tabled a second vote at the Thursday meeting that would determine whether the NMCAP Entity could use the remaining funds to improve water security in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron counties.

“The community need is huge. We’re very, very, happy that the process is going to move forward. ISC said they’re going to come up with a process to allocate those funds for the benefit of southwestern New Mexico,” Siwik said. “Absolutely we’re going to be watching this.”