Albuquerque residents coping with the COVID-19 pandemic have flocked to the Rio Grande this spring and summer in droves, said John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. “What we’re seeing in Albuquerque is stunning. People are in the river in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Fleck told NM Political Report. “People are out wading in the river, splashing around, playing, setting up family picnics on the emerging sand banks.”
That fun may soon come to an abrupt end. For the first time in decades, Albuquerque is facing a dry Rio Grande.
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.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently appointed a new director and seven new members to the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). The body, which is tasked with overseeing interstate water agreements and water planning for the state, has a total of nine commissioners, including a director, a chairperson and the state engineer. The new commission members are Bidtak Becker, former executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources in Window Rock, Arizona; New Mexico Acequia Association executive director Paula Garcia, who also serves as chair of the Mora County Commission; Mike Hamman, chief engineer and CEO at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District; Aron Balok, superintendent of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District and secretary and treasurer of the New Mexico chapter of the National Water Resource Association; Gregory Carrasco,a farmer and rancher in Las Cruces who served with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association; hydrogeologist Stacy Timmons, who is program manager at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech in Socorro; and Tanya Trujillo, lower basin project director at the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign. The Governor’s office said the new members represent a diverse set of interests and backgrounds. Carrasco was appointed to bring “an important agricultural perspective to water issues,” according to a press release from the Governor’s Office.
Plans for the Gila River diversion have changed. Again. At a meeting in Silver City on July 2, members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity voted to scale back development plans on the Gila River and one of its tributaries in southwestern New Mexico. The vote took place following completion of a preliminary draft environmental impact statement (PDEIS) about the group’s plans in the Cliff-Gila Valley, on the San Francisco River and in Virden, a town in Hidalgo County near the Arizona border. As proposed by the CAP Entity, the waters of the Gila River would be diverted, about three-and-a-half miles downstream from where the river runs out of the Gila Wilderness, via a 155-foot concrete weir wall.
This week, John D’Antonio will take the helm at the Office of the State Engineer, the agency that oversees water rights and applications in New Mexico, for the second time. D’Antonio served as State Engineer beginning in 2003, through the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, and for almost a year under Gov. Susana Martinez. After leaving the state position in 2011, D’Antonio returned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was named deputy district engineer for the agency’s Albuquerque district. Asked why, at this stage in his career, he’d want to head the state agency again, especially given New Mexico’s water challenges, D’Antonio said he didn’t initially apply for the position. “But as I spoke to the transition team…and noting how much of a challenge we have as a state, I thought it was important to have someone coming back in that could pull a lot of things together,” he said.
The search for a new state engineer has been ongoing since the transition team convened in December, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has yet to say who will carry out her policy as the state’s top water boss. But Lujan Grisham’s Communications Director Tripp Stelnicki said Friday a candidate is in place and an announcement, forthcoming. “I would say that if it’s not the toughest, it’s absolutely one of the toughest positions across state government to fill simply because of the expertise needed and the level of nuance,” Stelnicki said. Candidates must be registered professional engineers and also have “an understanding of these deeply-entrenched issues that go back decades, centuries—that are even older than the state,” Stelnicki said. The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) administers New Mexico’s water resources, overseeing both surface and groundwater rights.
Fourteen years after Congress authorized New Mexico to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona—and four years after a state commission voted to build a diversion on the Gila River—there’s little to show for the project, other than continued confusion and about $17 million in spent money. “The process is going to end at some point,” said Norman Gaume, an opponent of the project and a former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). “It’s a question of how much more money will they waste?”
At an ISC meeting on Thursday, the state approved an additional $110,000 for the engineering firm Stantec, as well as an amendment that would allow the quasi-governmental organization in charge of the project to someday spend money slated for the diversion on other water projects. But, noted Gaume, each of the 15 members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity will need their governing boards to approve it, too. In practical terms, he said, the change means little: the joint powers agreement says the state can only spend money on the diversion.
Last winter, snows didn’t come to the mountains, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande suffered from drought. In April, the river—New Mexico’s largest—was already drying south of Socorro. And over the summer, reservoir levels plummeted. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Texas, New Mexico and the U.S. government over the waters of the Rio Grande marches onward. At a meeting at the end of August, the special master assigned to the case by the Supreme Court set some new deadlines: The discovery period will close in the summer of 2020 and the case will go to trial no later than that fall.
Anyone who is paying attention to the Rio Grande’s drying riverbed and dropping reservoirs or is worried about declining groundwater levels probably has something to say about how the state might handle current—and coming—challenges. And they currently have their chance. The public comment period for New Mexico’s draft water plan ends next week. And while top state officials wouldn’t speak about the plan, New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates were eager to share their thoughts about water, drought and water planning in the state. The draft plan released earlier this year by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission examines statewide water issues through the lens of 16 regional water plans the ISC developed with input from local governments, nonprofits and stakeholders.
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.