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Gila River diversion plan ‘fatally flawed,’ water expert says

Gila River

A proposal to divert water from the Gila River in southwest New Mexico underestimates the cost and overestimates the water available, the former head of the New Mexico state agency considering the idea says. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico is overestimating the amount of water available from a proposed Gila River diversion and underestimating the cost and technical difficulty of the project, according to the former head of the state agency involved.

Norm Gaume

GUAME: Sediments interfere with river diversions

The project, as currently formulated, is “fatally flawed,” former New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission head Norm Gaume said in an interview Monday.

The Interstate Stream Commission, the agency Gaume headed from 1997 to 2002, must decide by the end of the year whether to proceed with a possible water project that would take water out of the Gila, possibly with a small dam, for farm or city use somewhere in southwest New Mexico. A state-funded analysis published in January estimated the cost of the project at between $280 million and $469 million.

Gaume, appointed by Republican Gov. Gary Johnson to head the Interstate Stream Commission, said that after reviewing the project study he is convinced that the cost is likely to be far higher. Gaume is scheduled to testify Thursday before the Senate Conservation Committee, which is considering legislation related to the project.

A spokeswoman for the Interstate Stream Commission declined comment.

Gaume noted that two similar projects on the Rio Grande, one by Albuquerque and one by Santa Fe, ended up costing far more than their original estimates. Gaume said the Gila project, as currently envisioned, is likely to run into the same difficulties.

Albuquerque’s San Juan-Chama Project cost rose from an intial $180 million estimate to $500 million. Santa Fe’s Buckman Direct Diversion, a project on which Gaume worked after leaving the Interstate Stream Commission in 2002, rose from an initial estimate of $99 million to about $235 million.

One problem that has plagued both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque projects, Gaume said, is sediments, which clog up intake and water pumping systems and are expensive to remove. The Gila diversion is likely to face the same problem, he argued.

“That sediment is going to plug the pipeline,” Gaume said. “There’s no question about it.” Installing systems to manage the sediment are sure to drive up the project’s cost beyond current estimates, he said.

The proposed Gila project would be partially funded with $100 million in federal money authorized by Congress in 2004 as part of a deal settling water rights claims in Arizona and New Mexico. As the clock ticks toward a December deadline for the state to decide how to spend the money, a battle is growing between those intent on preserving the river and those who believe the water should be developed for use in southwest New Mexico communities.

In addition to concerns about cost and silt, Gaume said that the state has not adequately factored in evaporation and seepage from reservoirs to be built to store water to be diverted from the river under the proposal.