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Gila River water use a contentious issue

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The value of a free-flowing Gila River for recreation and tourism clashed Tuesday with the possibility of diverting water for farm and city use during a meeting of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

The two differing visions of the Gila’s economic benefits to southwestern New Mexico are the subject of an increasingly contentious argument as the commission moves toward a decision later this year on New Mexico’s plans for water allocated to the state under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act.

Advocates for some sort of dam or other diversion to remove the water from the river for community use say it is crucial to the economic future of southwestern New Mexico. “The AWSA presents an opportunity that cannot be overlooked,” said Anthony Gutierrez, planning director for Grant County. “Southwest New Mexico is lacking in opportunities for economic development.”

The federal law sets aside $128 million for water project development, with the stipulation that it must be spent in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron counties.

Gutierrez was one of a number of residents who made the trip to Santa Fe on Tuesday to make pitches to the Interstate Stream Commission. Commissioners listened but took no action, saying no decision will be made on the river’s future until later this year.

Silver City hotel owner Kurt Albershardt said the real economic benefit comes from a free-flowing river. “The Gila is the last undammed river in New Mexico,” he said. “It’s an attraction for sportsmen from around the country.”

Albershardt and other critics of possible development of the Gila said any dam or diversion would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Even with federal money that is part of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico taxpayers will be on the hook for substantial additional costs for a relatively small amount of water that the river has to offer, Albershardt and other water project opponents argue. They say the federal money should be used instead to fund things like incentives for agricultural irrigation efficiency improvements, leaving the Gila flowing free.

Starting in the Gila National Forest, the Gila River flows west from New Mexico into Arizona, where it provides a major source of water for cities and farms in the central part of that state. The 2004 federal legislation was primarily focused on dividing the river’s waters in Arizona, but allocated a share for use within New Mexico.

The Interstate Stream Commission has until Dec. 31 to formally notify the Department of Interior about New Mexico’s plans for the water.

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