A free-flowing Gila River is far better than a diverted one

This month, more than 300 New Mexico business owners and leaders across the state sent a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez asking her to reject expensive and unpopular water diversion projects as she decides on best approaches to secure southwestern New Mexico’s future water supply and to instead consider cost-effective, common sense alternatives.

The letter comes as the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission weighs options to divert water from the Gila River, a project permitted by the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004.

There are many reasons to reject any form of a Gila diversion project. Any such project is an incredibly expensive undertaking. The price tag is estimated to be exorbitant – well over $300 million and for that we will get only a short-term fix.

After utilizing the money allotted for the project by the Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico taxpayers and water-users are still stuck with a bill of approximately $200 million dollars. Adding in the annual operation and maintenance costs of a diversion will cost taxpayers another several million dollars per year.

These costs should be concerning for all New Mexicans since there are effective and less expensive alternatives to address our water supply issues.

In fact, New Mexicans are concerned. A poll of New Mexico voters conducted by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies in 2013 found that a majority of New Mexicans favor water conservation measures, with 85 percent believing that using water wisely – by continuing to conserve water, using new technology, such as water-saving irrigation systems for farmers and ranchers to help reduce wasted water, replacing outdated water infrastructure and increasing recycling of water – is preferable to diverting more water from New Mexico’s rivers to communities where more people live.

These public preferences are consistent with the December 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, co-authored by the Bureau of Reclamation, the State of New Mexico and the other basin states, which concluded that conservation and water re-use are the cheapest and easiest solutions to implement as a means to balancing supply and demand on the river and its tributaries.

These are the types of solutions the governor and the Interstate Streams Commission should be seriously weighing, discussing and proposing instead of dabbling in expensive and time-consuming ways to divert New Mexico’s last free-flowing river.

Traveling undisturbed, the Gila supports wildlife and fisheries that are coveted by sportsmen throughout the U.S. The Gila Wilderness, kept vibrant by a healthy Gila River flowing through it, beckons hikers, birders, hunters and anglers, and helps to support a $1.6 billion outdoor recreation economy based on the Colorado River’s four main tributaries in New Mexico.

Diverting water from the Gila would harm wildlife, limit recreation opportunities and almost certainly wither an important part of our local economy.

The economic boost from healthy rivers in the state supports 17,000 New Mexican jobs. Seemingly simple outdoor activities like picnicking, trail activities, wildlife watching, camping, fishing, water sports, bicycling, snow sports and hunting are major economic drivers that pour millions of dollars into New Mexico’s local businesses and state treasury.

A significant portion of this bounty disappears should the Gila River no longer flow free and attract recreation and tourism.

We have defeated attempts to dam and divert the Gila River before. This time around, the reasons to keep the river healthy, once again, far outweigh any reasons to divert water.

I urge the governor and commission to ask themselves: Why impair a wild and free river that supports abundant wildlife and attracts outdoor recreationists spending time and money in New Mexico when we can develop effective and cheaper non-diversion alternatives that would keep our Gila River flowing free?

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