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Governor should heed public opinion on diversion

A new poll conducted to find out the sentiments of New Mexico voters on the state’s water issues reveals that New Mexicans are gravely concerned about the health of rivers, believe that rivers are critical to quality of life, and reject the concept of river diversions in favor of non-diversion.

Moreover, a large majority of New Mexico voters oppose the controversial Gila River diversion project in favor of long-term solutions that protect rivers. These findings should be of great interest to Gov. Susana Martinez as she is faced with complex decisions about the future of water in New Mexico.

At this time, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission is considering whether to use federal funding under the Arizona Water Settlements Act to divert 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila River or to pursue non-diversion conservation alternatives. After a history of three failed attempts to dam and divert the Gila over the past 50 years, New Mexico voters have been asked through this poll whether or not they support a diversion project.

Their responses are clear. The poll, conducted by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, illuminates six big-picture findings that bear on any discussion about shaping water policy in New Mexico:

1. New Mexico voters are very concerned about water issues. Whether the subject is drought, water levels in New Mexico rivers, or state water supplies, New Mexico voters are overwhelmingly concerned.

2. New Mexicans value their rivers. Statewide over 90 percent feel that rivers are critical to their quality of life, 86 percent see rivers as critical to New Mexico’s outdoor recreation opportunities, and 85 percent feel that rivers are critical to the state’s economy.

3. Voters decisively reject the concept and the specifics of a river diversion project. When asked to choose the wiser path for the state to undertake, more than 85 percent of voters reject river diversions in favor of alternative approaches such as water conservation, using new technology to help reduce wasted water and increasing recycling of water.

4. The more New Mexico voters hear, the less they like the Gila River project. When told how the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act works, the cost of the pipeline after federal funding, and that taxpayers would have to pay Arizona for the amount of water it takes out of the Gila river every year, opposition across the political spectrum immediately increased. More than two-thirds of voters statewide perceived the diversion as a temporary fix and at $300 million a very pricey Band-Aid.

5. Water supply options other than diversion are greeted with much more enthusiasm. Greater homeowner water conservation, water-saving irrigation systems for farmers and ranchers, replacing outdated water infrastructure and building desalinization plants all received support from almost 90 percent and more of voters polled.

6. The huge price tag for a pipeline is a major concern. Only 30 percent are willing to pay for the diversion project. New Mexicans would rather come up with their own solutions to water problems by a 3-to-1 margin statewide, rather than use federal funds designated for this water pipeline.

We are pleased to see Martinez on the same page with New Mexico’s majority on river conservation. Her recent announcement of plans to protect the health of rivers and watersheds, and to restore critical habitats through the New Mexico River Stewards Initiative speaks volumes.

The governor’s initiative will take us in the direction supported by a statewide majority. We hope that having this measure of opinion from New Mexico taxpayers helps inform the governor’s position on the best approach to securing southwestern New Mexico’s future water supply.

And when it comes time for the Interstate Stream Commission to make final recommendations about the proposed Gila River diversion to the Bureau of Reclamation by December 2014, we trust that the strong voter preference to reject this costly diversion project will be upheld.

Protect the Flows, which commissioned the poll, is a network of nearly 900 businesses in the seven Colorado River basin states who depend on a healthy Colorado River for their livelihoods (150 are located in New Mexico).

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