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.
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.
Environmentalists, business owners and sportsmen cheered after a victory in protecting the state’s last free-flowing river. Grant County Commissioners voted to adopt a resolution last week to support protecting portions of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and tributaries under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 establishes protections for free-flowing waterways in the U.S. The designation protects rivers that offer “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values” by preserving them and prohibiting further development in the area. Rivers or portions of rivers can be designated wild and scenic through legislation, or through the U.S. Department of Interior.
“A wild and scenic river designation is the highest form of protection for a river,” Joey Keefe, communications coordinator for New Mexico Wild, told NM Political Report. “This proposal would protect various segments of the Gila and San Francisco rivers in their current free-flowing state — the completely undammed, undeveloped parts of the river are what we’re looking at and trying to protect those segments for future generations.”
The resolution was the result of grassroots efforts by the Gila River Wild and Scenic Coalition to protect the Gila River.
One of the biggest environment stories this week is the release of an updated New Mexico State Water Plan. Susan Montoya Bryan covered that for the Associated Press, noting a few of the plan’s recommendations, including:
New Mexico’s supply of groundwater should be reserved for periods of drought, communities should have sharing agreements in place when supplies are short and alternatives such as desalination should be explored regardless of the cost. She interviewed Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who has worked on water issues for years. Wirth noted that the state hasn’t spent enough money on water planning in recent years and that “the plan has become more a reaction to the evolving conditions.”
NM Political Report reached out to the public information officer for the state’s two water agencies, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission to interview State Engineer Tom Blaine or other state officials about the plan and its implementation. We received no response.
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.
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.
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.
SANTA FE, N.M. – Conservation groups fighting a plan to divert large amounts of water from the Gila River in New Mexico say today is the deadline for the federal government to green light the plan. The project would cut a significant amount of water from the river that normally flows into Arizona. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to announce whether funds will be allocated for the project. It would divert some 14,000-acre feet of water annually, and pump it over the Continental Divide to southern New Mexico. Staci Stevens, communications manager for the Audubon New Mexico, says the environmental impact statement and other studies for the project will have to clear some high hurdles.
Hakim Bellamy is the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, a position which he held from 2012 to 2014. Originating in America’s first designated wilderness area — a protection inspired by Aldo Leopold — New Mexico’s Gila River is a mainstay for the region’s recreation economy and a biological gem whose riparian forests boast one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in the country. But it’s now at risk from a billion-dollar diversion project. After three failed attempts to dam and divert this still-wild river, developers are hoping the fourth time’s a charm. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has until November 23 to decide whether to allow the project to go through.
Veronica C. García, Ed.D. is the executive director, New Mexico Voices for Children
New Mexico has a long history of forging innovative solutions to a whole host of problems. Our know-how and ingenuity have influenced everything from the creation of the personal computer to the exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond. Surely we can come up with workable solutions for the myriad problems we face here at home. One long-term problem—child poverty—has worsened and recently released Census numbers drop New Mexico to the very bottom in the nation, with 30 percent of our children living at or below the poverty level (just $24,250 for a family of four). Poverty is a complex issue, but one that we ignore at our peril. Brain science and biology show us that the damaging effects of poverty on a young child’s development are irreversible.
The next major water project in New Mexico could be diverting the last free-flowing river in New Mexico, the Gila River. New Mexico Voices for Children became the latest group to criticize the diversion, saying the amount of money spent on it could better be spent in other ways in the state, citing a potential $1 billion cost. The cost of a diversion plan are highly debated. Some say that it would cost $330 million, others that it would cost $1 billion. When the Interstate Stream Commission voted to move ahead on the diversion, opponents of the plan pegged the cost at between $575 million and $1 billion.