ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sign-wielding protesters gathered in front of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s Albuquerque office Monday to oppose a proposed Gila River water project they called “a billion-dollar boondoggle.”
If the project goes forward, it would divert water from the Gila in southwest New Mexico for farm and city use. Environmentalists say the cost is too high, both in money to build it and in environmental damage, to proceed. Supporters say the water is needed in the region, and that it would be unfair to the region’s residents to simply let it flow downstream to Arizona.
Cost estimates have varied widely, starting at as low as $41 million, according to preliminary analyses. But opponents have seized on one in particular, by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that suggested the project could cost up to $1 billion once all costs are taken into account.
“We don’t have a billion dollars to throw around,” said Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club, one of the groups that organized Monday’s demonstration, which drew nearly 70 people to a sidewalk along San Antonio NE as members of the commission heard testimony inside a nearby office building.
State officials, facing a Dec. 31 decision on whether to proceed, said the commission is merely gathering information at this point and has not made up its mind. “The commission is faced with a very difficult decision on whether to develop this water or not,” Amy Haas, the commission’s attorney, said in an interview. “No predetermination has been made by this commission at any level.”
Monday’s meeting, which included technical presentations by state consultants on some of the options under study and their impacts, had been delayed two weeks because of a state Open Meetings Act lawsuit by engineer Norm Gaume. Gaume, a project critic, alleges that a commission subcommittee has been meeting in secret, in violation of the law. The lawsuit remains undecided, but Santa Fe District Judge Raymond Ortiz ruled last week that information meetings on the project could proceed.
Gaume said the protest shows that the debate about the project is shifting from a technocratic argument about dollar costs and river flows to one around community values about the river.
“Here we are at a point of decision, and people care about the Gila,” Gaume said in an interview.