Billion dollar Gila diversion off the table

This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much […]

Billion dollar Gila diversion off the table

This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.

The Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, downstream from Bill Evans Reservoir.
The Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, downstream from Bill Evans Reservoir.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAPE, directed its engineering contractor to continue studying only those projects that would cost $80-100 million to build. That’s how much funding New Mexico anticipates receiving from the federal government to develop water from the Gila and perhaps its tributary, the San Francisco River.

This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.

With that vote, the NMCAPE officially rejected earlier large-scale plans, including one with an estimated billion dollar price tag.  By tamping down the budget, the board also acknowledged that the project will be smaller – and not one capable of delivering all 14,000 acre feet of water the state has rights to under federal law.

“We just want to create something new, that will be a benefit to New Mexico,” NMCAPE chair Darr Shannon told NMID. A Hidalgo County Commissioner, Shannon represents the Hidalgo Soil and Water Conservation District on the board. “We have visions of helping New Mexico’s municipalities and smaller communities, and to create a revenue source.”

Pete Domenici, Jr., the board’s attorney, told members during Tuesday’s NMCAPE meeting if the entity goes over the $100 million in federal money to plan, study, and build its project, “I don’t know where the money is going to come from.”

But it’s not clear how much of that estimated $100 million will be left in the fund when the time comes to break ground. The state has already spent millions on engineering contractors, attorneys, salaries, grants, meetings, and studies. Domenici estimated between $10 million and $15 million has been spent when asked by NMID, but deferred to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s (ISC) Craig Roepke for a more precise number.

Roepke would not answer during the meeting, citing the agency’s media policy. The agency’s Public Information Officer Melissa Dosher later wrote in an email that only $5,647,077.26 has been spent. But that figure does not include contracts for services or grants that have been signed but not yet paid.

Critics of the diversion greeted the board’s decision to pare back plans as good news, but said much uncertainty remains.

“We’re certainly pleased that they seem to be saying ‘no’ to the very expensive diversion up by Turkey Creek in the roadless area, but there are still lots of unanswered questions and potentially, some significant impacts in terms of cost as well as the environment,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “We even heard the CAP Entity saying they’re going to have problems paying for the operation and management costs of pumping; there are still a lot of questions in terms of where they’re heading.”

Shannon and some other board members, as well as executive director Anthony Gutierrez, point out that once the project has been built, they could generate revenue by selling water. No buyers have been identified, but Gutierrez says that’s not a concern right now. Water is always valuable, he says, especially during times of drought.

Plans still on the table range from storing Gila River water either in a reservoir on Spar Canyon or in ponds on existing farmland – to diverting water from the river and storing it underground for later use. Another option would rely on existing infrastructure owned by mining company Freeport-McMoRan, including the Bill Evans Reservoir.

This week, the ISC also presented its work plan budget on the Gila for Fiscal Year 2017. Exceeding $12 million, the estimated budget includes engineering services ($1.85 million), environmental compliance studies ($810,000), public outreach services ($16,000), legal services ($340,000), and grant funding for projects like irrigation improvements and municipal water conservation ($9.1 million.)

The Gila project has been decades in the making.

In a Supreme Court decision nearly seven decades ago, New Mexico was promised additional water rights from the Colorado River, but only if someone in Arizona were willing to trade Colorado River water for water from the Gila or San Francisco rivers. The 2004 Arizona Waters Settlement Act allowed New Mexico to trade with Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community – and gave state officials 10 years to decide if they would meet water demands in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, and Catron counties through efficiency and conservation or by building a diversion on the Gila River.

In 2014, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted to pursue the diversion alternative.

The NMCAPE was formed in 2015. It works in cooperation with the Interstate Stream Commission, but is its own, separate agency. Each NMCAPE board member represents a county, city, agency, or irrigation district that has committed to building, financing, and operating the diversion.

To receive all of the federal funding promised under the 2004 act, the state has until December 2019 to come up with a plan and complete studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Advocates for family and children say budget provides benefits for children

Advocates for family and children say budget provides benefits for children

The legislature passed a budget of $10.2 billion this year. The budget now awaits the governor’s signature.  Some highlights from the budget that will…
Legislation focused on reforms of oil and gas extraction fails to pass

Legislation focused on reforms of oil and gas extraction fails to pass

This legislative session brought few changes to the oil and gas industry that provides a substantial part of the state’s budget. Going into the…
Supporters say affirmative consent bill would make college campuses safer

Supporters say affirmative consent bill would make college campuses safer

The bill to mandate affirmative consent policies and procedures in institutions of higher education awaits the governor’s signature. If signed, advocates hope it will…
Legislation focused on reforms of oil and gas extraction fails to pass

Legislation focused on reforms of oil and gas extraction fails to pass

This legislative session brought few changes to the oil and gas industry that provides a substantial part of the state’s budget. Going into the…
Senate approves bill to allow wastewater project funding through the Water Trust Board

Senate approves bill to allow wastewater project funding through the Water Trust Board

The Senate passed legislation that changes which projects can receive funding through the Water Trust Board on a 34-5 vote on Wednesday. HB 211…
Geothermal bill makes it to governor’s desk for second consecutive year

Geothermal bill makes it to governor’s desk for second consecutive year

The Senate unanimously passed legislation intended to spur development of geothermal energy on Wednesday. HB 91 now heads to the governor’s desk.  The legislation…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee discussed a potential constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the governor’s executive powers. The committee approved…
Supreme Court censures attorney over conduct in anti-COVID policy suits

Supreme Court censures attorney over conduct in anti-COVID policy suits

The New Mexico State Supreme Court censured a New Mexico attorney because of her “misconduct” in two unsuccessful cases pushing back on COVID-19 regulations…
Guv outlines some health priorities on state spending

Guv outlines some health priorities on state spending

During her state of the state address on Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told legislators that one of her legislative priorities is a request…
Referendum on Edgewood’s anti-abortion ordinance moves forward

Referendum on Edgewood’s anti-abortion ordinance moves forward

The town of Edgewood is moving forward with its ballot referendum on its anti-abortion ordinance at a cost of more than $35,000. The town…
2023 Top Stories #1: Anti-abortion efforts go local

2023 Top Stories #1: Anti-abortion efforts go local

Note: Every year, we count down the top ten stories of the year, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers. Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral…
NM Supreme Court to decide if local anti-abortion ordinances are legal

NM Supreme Court to decide if local anti-abortion ordinances are legal

The New Mexico Supreme Court will decide whether anti-abortion ordinances passed by local governments in eastern New Mexico over the last 13 months can…
Paid Family Medical Leave bill dies in the final days of the session for a second year in a row

Paid Family Medical Leave bill dies in the final days of the session for a second year in a row

A bill that would have provided paid leave for several weeks died on the House floor when 11 Democrats sided with Republicans to vote…
Paid Family and Medical Leave bill passes Senate

Paid Family and Medical Leave bill passes Senate

A bill that seeks to provide several weeks of paid family and medical leave for workers in the state passed the state senate by…
Paid Family and Medical Leave bill heads to Senate floor

Paid Family and Medical Leave bill heads to Senate floor

The Senate Finance Committee passed a bill to provide paid leave for workers for medical reasons by a 6-5 vote on Saturday. SB 3,…

Bill to require disclosure of use of AI in campaign materials goes to governor

The Senate approved a bill aiming to require the disclosure of the use of artificial intelligence or other changes made by computers to campaign…
House amends, passes bill banning firearms near polling places

House amends, passes bill banning firearms near polling places

The House narrowly approved a bill that would ban firearms near polling places. The House voted 35-34 to pass the bill following an extensive…
Manny Gonzales doesn’t qualify for Senate GOP primary ballot

Manny Gonzales doesn’t qualify for Senate GOP primary ballot

Nella Domenici is the lone Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, after Manny Gonzales III failed to qualify for the ballot. Gonzales did not file…
Advocates for family and children say budget provides benefits for children

Advocates for family and children say budget provides benefits for children

The legislature passed a budget of $10.2 billion this year. The budget now awaits the governor’s signature.  Some highlights from the budget that will…
Supporters say affirmative consent bill would make college campuses safer

Supporters say affirmative consent bill would make college campuses safer

The bill to mandate affirmative consent policies and procedures in institutions of higher education awaits the governor’s signature. If signed, advocates hope it will…
Governor, legislative leadership reflect on session

Governor, legislative leadership reflect on session

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders held press conferences after the end of the 2024 legislative session, explaining their concerns and thoughts about…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report