The Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) is considering how to move forward on several water infrastructure projects — and future coordination with the New Mexico Central Arizona (NM CAP) Entity — now that the Gila River diversion project is no longer viable.
Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, provided state lawmakers with an update on the Gila River diversion project last week after the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (NM CAP) Entity lost access to key funding. After the project fell more than a year behind schedule, the U.S. Department of Interior dealt a major blow to the project in December 2019 when it denied the NM CAP Entity’s request for 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 (AWSA). The NM CAP Entity had until the end of December 2019 to complete the necessary environment impact statements and receive a federal Record of Decision. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Interstate Stream Commission finally released a draft environmental impact statement for the project in April 2020, after a series of revisions to its scope.
RELATED: After a long battle, the Gila River Diversion project comes to an end
The draft EIS carried a price tag of $3.7 million. But in June, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted 7-2 against supplying the U.S Bureau of Reclamation an additional $635,000 in funding needed to complete the EIS and reach a federal Record of Notice.
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.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the budget passed earlier this year by state legislators. But she refused to sign a bill that would have reinstated state tax credits for solar. That bill reinstated a tax credit that had expired after a decade, one that had spurred the deployment of 220 million BTUs per day of solar heating energy and 40 megawatts of solar electricity. The tax credit would have given people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. Previously, Martinez has praised the state’s “all of the above” energy resources, but by declining to sign the solar tax credit bill, she effectively vetoed it, but without having to explain why. This week, there’s an interesting water case before the Second District Court, over a private company’s plans to drill for groundwater in the Sandia Mountains.
By a tight vote Tuesday morning, the Senate Conservation Committee passed a water bill—one that represents the latest attempt to control spending on a controversial diversion on the Gila River. Introduced by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Senate Bill 72, would channel federal money earmarked for the diversion toward other water projects in southwestern New Mexico. It would appropriate $50 million toward fully implementing a regional water project in Grant County, other shovel-ready water projects in the area, a groundwater study of the Mimbres Basin aquifer and water planning for the City of Deming. Morales told NM Political Report that he sees passage of the bill as a way to move tens of millions of dollars in federal money in a “responsible way.”
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted in 2014 to build the diversion, ten years after Congress authorized the state to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona. Already, New Mexico has spent more than $13 million of its federal subsidy on studies, engineering plans, and attorneys fees, although the state and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity still lack a firm plan or location for the diversion.
The big news in New Mexico this week involved the state’s proposed science standards. At a hearing on Monday not one of the hundreds of people who showed up spoke in support of the state’s plans to implement statewide science standards with inadequate information climate change and evolution. Afterwards, the secretary of the Public Education Department announced they would back off some of those changes. It remains to be seen what the state will actually propose now, and how that process will go. But it was heartening to see that newspapers, radio stations, and even TV reporters all showed up to cover science and education this week.
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.
On Monday, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted to amend an engineering contract for the proposed Gila River diversion. The change was necessary because the company’s earlier work, done at the direction of the state and the entity planning the diversion, didn’t take into account crucial information. The ISC and the New Mexico Central Arizona (CAP) Entity has been moving diversions plans forward, even though the proposed infrastructure would cross lands owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state of New Mexico. Last week, the CAP Entity’s board of directors confirmed their latest plans weren’t going to work, and voted on a new scope of work for the engineering company, AECOM. According to a presentation by ISC Gila Basin Manager Ali Effati, the cost of the revised tasks and deletion of former tasks will offset each other.
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.