New Mexico commission votes to divert Gila River

Decision greenlights contentious multi-million dollar diversion project.


On Monday, New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission voted to take advantage of federal funding and build a diversion and storage project on the upper Gila River.

The project, expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, comes under the Arizona 2004 Water Settlements Act, which gave New Mexico the right to develop an additional 14,000 acre feet of water on the Gila. The act also makes up to $128 million in federal funding available if the state builds a diversion system, or about half that if the state pursues smaller water projects in the region.

The decision marks the beginning of the end of a contentious 10-year long planning process. For supporters of a diversion, the decision means a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure more water for a drought-prone state, but opponents fear that doing so means committing New Mexico to a hugely expensive project it can’t afford.

The Gila River flows through southwest New Mexico. On Monday State officials approved plans to build a diversion that would take more water out of the Gila - the last major undammed river in the state. Photograph from Flickr user Mark Harris.
"Even though the (commission) obviously already had its mind made up, we are very disappointed with today's decision,” said Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “A billion dollar Gila River diversion project is a bad idea for New Mexico taxpayers and water users — it's infeasible; it's too expensive; the project will provide little to no water and will harm the wildlife of the Gila River."

The one dissenting vote came from Commissioner Blane Sanchez, who said he had reservations about the projected costs of the project. Echoing those concerns, Siwik noted that neither farmers, municipalities, nor the state of New Mexico have demonstrated they can actually pay for the water once it's diverted. Piping it across the Continental Divide to the city of Deming, as the approved proposal outlines, could lead to a 10-fold increase in municipal water rates — from $2.28 per 1,000 gallons to over $22. That's because on top of the construction costs, and the cost of operating and managing the new facilities, New Mexico must pay to replace the water it takes out of the Gila with water from the Central Arizona Project at the current rate of $146 per acre-foot. Exchange costs must be paid in advance for the Scott Verhines, the state water engineer and a member of the commission acknowledged the financial uncertainty, but said a “no” vote before the project is fleshed out would bar the option of future development of the water.

Monday’s decision catalyzes a complex set of next steps. After notifying the U.S. Secretary of the Interior that it intends to build a diversion, the state has one year to sign an agreement with the government to nail down details of the project. That means New Mexico will continue financing studies to flesh out how much the diversion will cost, how it will comply with environmental laws and how much water it will yield. The required federal studies, a necessity for the work to proceed, could take another five years to complete, staff told the commission.

The state has spent $7 million studying the diversion proposals thus far — money that Siwik says could have been used on more cost-effective, conservation-oriented projects.

In the meantime, opponents will continue to highlight the cost of the diversion, in hopes of stopping it. “If it doesn’t look like anyone can pay for the project when it comes time to sign the agreement, this won’t go anywhere,” says Siwik.

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News.  

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