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Plans to build a diversion dam on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico have hit another snag. The Interior Department has denied a state entity an extension to receive $56 million in diversion construction funds.
The New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity still has nearly $70 million in the New Mexico Unit Fund for a Gila diversion and regional water projects. But the loss of more federal money means less infrastructure, and less water that could be diverted from the river. In 15 years, the state has spent nearly $15 million planning for a diversion.
Under the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, the CAP Entity had until the end of this month to receive a federal record of decision on environmental impact statements to obtain $56 million.
CAP Entity Executive Director Anthony Gutierrez and lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. visited Washington, D.C., in October to petition for an extension.
Timothy Petty, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, informed the state of the decision on Dec. 20.
Petty said in a letter that New Mexico’s “slow pace of progress” on the diversion plans showed a “lack of urgency” for delivering water to rural communities.
“Even today, a feasible project with necessary funding and contractual commitments has not been identified to enable project success,” he wrote. “It’s a disappointment this project, that would bring critical water supplies to rural communities in New Mexico, has faced such scrutiny and a lack of support from the State of New Mexico.”
Several alterations to the diversion plans were made as recently as July. The changes slashed project cost estimates by about $83million but also reduced the amount of water that could be diverted from the Gila.
Those last-minute adjustments meant more changes to the environmental impact statements and made it difficult for the federal government to issue a record of decision in time.
Plans to dam or divert the Gila, which is often called the last free-flowing river in New Mexico, have been controversial for decades.
Project supporters say the diversion, which once promised to deliver as much as 14,000 acre-feet of “new water,” would be invaluable to farmers and rural communities in the southwestern corner of the state.
“It would be irresponsible for us not to give future generations access to this water,” Joe Runyan, a CAP Entity representative from the Gila Farm Irrigation Association in the Cliff-Gila Valley, told the Journal earlier this year. “We should be at the table when it comes to accessing Colorado River water. The next generation will be glad we did.”
But opponents argue a diversion is not the best use of Arizona Water Settlements Act money and would harm the region’s wildlife.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a letter in September encouraging the Interior Department not to extend the funding deadline. Earlier this year, the governor vetoed $1.7 million in Gila diversion funding requested by the Interstate Stream Commission.
Much of the state’s congressional delegation remains opposed to a Gila diversion.
“Let’s relegate these fruitless and destructive Gila diversion proposals to the history books and put the rest of our federal money from the AWSA to work on more realistic and practical water infrastructure projects that we know will work,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called the Gila a “jewel” that deserves protection, and said it would be irresponsible to “sacrifice” the river with a diversion.
Several environmental groups applauded the Interior Department’s decision to deny the additional funding.
“This is great news,” Todd Schulke of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. “Planning for a Gila River diversion under the Arizona Water Settlements Act has gone on for 15 years and wasted $15 million without producing plans for a viable project. It’s well past time to move on and focus our attention and the tens of millions of dollars in AWSA funding on priority community water projects that can bring real water security to everyone in southwest New Mexico.”
Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, said the decision was a “great holiday gift (to) people who care about the Gila.”
The next NMCAP Entity meeting will be Jan. 7, and the next Interstate Stream Commission meeting is scheduled for Jan. 21.
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.