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Commission ends work on Gila diversion

The Gila River flows downstream of Cliff on June 18. The river is the subject of a project that will divert water that can then be sold to farmers and irrigation associations. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

The Gila River flows downstream of Cliff, New Mexico, in June 2019. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state Interstate Stream Commission on Thursday voted 7-2 to stop the Environmental Impact Statement process for a Gila River diversion, effectively ending the yearslong, multimillion-dollar project, designed to build a concrete structure to channel water to a reservoir for area farmers in the Cliff-Gila Valley of southwestern New Mexico.

The ISC also denied the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s request for $635,000 to complete the process.

“Unfortunately it appears the water is cost prohibitive for users,” said ISC chairman Mark Sanchez during the remotely-held meeting, “and the inability of the CAP Entity to manage the project, and meet goals and deadlines has brought us to a position that we’re in today.”

New Mexico has spent $16 million planning for the Gila diversion, Sanchez said.

In 2014, the ISC voted to use money from the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 for a Gila diversion. They later created the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAP Entity, to oversee funds and planning.

In December 2019, the U.S. Interior Department denied NMCAP’s request for a deadline extension on the Environmental Impact Statement. The project lost $56 million in federal construction funds as a result.

Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of NMCAP, told the Journal that he was “disappointed” the process had ended. But Gutierrez said he was pleased with the commission’s interest in other water projects for southwest New Mexico.

“I don’t feel that we failed,” he said.

About $70 million remains in the New Mexico Unit Fund from the AWSA. The Interstate Stream Commission may choose to work with NMCAP to spend that money.

“There has to be some watershed management,” Gutierrez said. “There’s got to be improvements to our old agriculture systems like the push-up dams … to make them more efficient. And as far as municipal water need, we are seeing a rather concerning depletion of the groundwater supplies in the aquifer.”

Commissioners Aron Balok and Greg Carrasco voted against ending the process. Both said New Mexico could lose the opportunity to access up to 14,000 acre-feet of water.

“I don’t think the commission has much choice but to complete what we started,” Balok said prior to the vote.

Some commissioners questioned the accuracy of the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

“I found some of the sections, particularly the groundwater section, to be limited by quite insufficient data, mapping, well control and somewhat weak references,” said Stacy Timmons.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham applauded the decision to end an “expensive and ill-advised” process.

“I look forward to continuing to work with local governments and stakeholders to invest in long overdue water projects in southwest New Mexico and continue protecting the Gila,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, also issued statements in support of the ISC decision.

Even with a bare-bones alternative, the proposed diversion had high construction costs, as well as high prices for farmers to use the water.

“This $70 million could help thousands of people, rather than just a handful of farmers,” Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, told the Journal. “I’m really pleased that this process has turned around after all these years.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

 

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