This week, Congress passed a bill directing the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement an agreement worked out by states that rely on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act easily passed both chambers and now awaits a signature from the president. The plan acknowledges that flows of the Colorado River—which supplies drinking water to 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres—are declining. And it represents efforts by the states, cities, water districts, tribes and farmers to make changes that will keep two important reservoirs from dropping too low. Had they not come to an agreement, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have imposed restrictions on water use.
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.
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, three members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) resigned, including Chairman Caleb Chandler, Jim Wilcox and longtime board member, Jim Dunlap. Earlier this year, ISC Director Deborah Dixon also left. Her departure came shortly after a public disagreement with State Engineer Tom Blaine at an ISC meeting. Update: One of the ex-ISC members told NM Political Report why he quit. The ISC consists of nine commissioners appointed by the governor, including the director of the ISC and the State Engineer.
With a big deadline bearing down in 2019, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or CAP Entity, has yet to choose a plan or exact location for the Gila Diversion. That’s despite already spending more than $12 million of the state’s federal subsidy for the project. At the end of September, AECOM—the engineering firm hired to come up with designs for the CAP Entity to choose from—presented board members with possible design ideas based on the group’s cost and needs. The CAP Entity was then supposed to decide at its October 3 meeting on a plan. Instead, the group punted.
Happy First Day of Spring! It’s hot out there. Record hot, in fact. On Sunday, the Albuquerque Sunport hit 80 degrees—making it the 3rd earliest 80-degree day for that location’s recorded history. This morning, the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque said those above normal high temperatures will continue in central and eastern New Mexico—and that the winds will return, too.
A bill related to the proposed diversion on the Gila River has effectively died. The Senate Finance Committee tabled the bill Monday night and asked the bill’s supporters and opponents to resolve the issues on their own, without changing the law. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 340, which would have required additional oversight of the federal money New Mexico receives to plan and build the diversion. Had the bill passed, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) would have been required to answer specific questions before paying out more money for attorneys, engineers and consultants.
Today, the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor released information about unspent funds in various state accounts. A quick read of the report shows that New Mexico isn’t spending all it has available on environment and water projects. According to the report, New Mexico has $512 million in unspent water-related infrastructure funding. The office points out that despite increasing needs around the state, “water-related infrastructure funds continue to accumulate faster than they can get out the door.”
The state also has $43 million in “stagnant funds” that haven’t been used the last two years according to the State Auditor. Among the largest of those 39 funds?
The Navajo Generating Station is on the Navajo Nation near Page, Arizona. But the plant’s closure in 2019, announced last week by Salt River Project, will have implications across the West. The coal-fired power plant is among the region’s largest polluters, contributing to smog at National Parks like the Grand Canyon and emitting 44,000 tons of carbon each day. It also employs nearly 1,000 people, most of whom are from the Navajo Nation or the Hopi Tribe. The Associated Press covered the announcement from SRP and how it might affect local economies and the Kayenta Mine, which is owned by Peabody Energy and has supplied coal to the plant for decades.
Last month, NM Political Report wrote about how a one-sentence provision in state law emboldened an agency to keep one citizen from obtaining public information. In December, retired Interstate Stream Commission Director Norman Gaume asked his former agency for an unlocked copy of an Excel spreadsheet showing how much water is diverted from and used along the Gila River and its tributaries each year. The agency’s questionable actions against Gaume drew the attention of one of New Mexico’s U.S. Senator, and a state representative who introduced a bill to make a slight wording change to the state’s open records law. Over the past few years, Gaume has opposed the state’s plans to build a diversion along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. With an unlocked copy of the spreadsheet, he could examine the formulas and original data within the spreadsheet.