Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
A state water agency is still planning to divert the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, despite a fast-approaching funding deadline.
The New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, which oversees federal money for a Gila diversion project, met in Silver City on Tuesday.
In October, the entity will send executive director Anthony Gutierrez and lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. to Washington, D.C., to ask the Department of the Interior for a deadline extension on the Gila diversion environmental impact statements.
The federal deadline is Dec. 31 for Interior’s record of decision on those documents, which were prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation. If NMCAP can’t secure an extension, it will lose out on up to $62 million in construction funds from the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004.
But up to $90 million would still be available for a Gila diversion or smaller water projects.
Domenici said the entity approved a position paper to send to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt with maps and photos of the proposed project area and the Gila diversion business plan.
Reclamation’s work on environmental impact statements has been delayed partly because the river diversion plans have changed several times since 2014, when the Interstate Stream Commission created the NMCAP entity.
“A lot of it has to do with the complexity of the river,” Domenici said of the process. “You develop a preliminary project plan, and then look at it again and again. We’ve removed components from the project, so then hydrology studies have to be changed to take that into account.”
In July, NMCAP eliminated several reservoirs, storage ponds and pump stations from the project plans. The changes cut project costs by about $80 million, but now the project may divert only a small fraction of the 14,000 acre-feet of water that was originally promised.
At Tuesday’s meeting, NMCAP approved a Gila River diversion business plan prepared by Stantec Engineering. Former State Engineer Scott Verhines, who voted in favor of a Gila diversion when he was on the stream commission, is now a consulting engineer with Stantec on the business plan.
The plan that Gutierrez and Domenici will present to the Interior Department in D.C. outlines how the diversion structures will be maintained and how the diverted water from the Gila can be sold to farmers and irrigation associations.
The stream commission has approved $15 million for Gila diversion planning. Domenici said NMCAP will provide the stream commission with the business plan, and the draft environmental impact statements should be made public within six weeks.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.