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Gila River diversion project gets boost

SILVER CITY – New Mexico is one step closer to deciding how to manage its share of the Gila River now that staff with the Interstate Stream Commission has recommended taking advantage of federal funding to build a diversion and storage system along the river.

The staff also recommended during Friday’s commission meeting in Silver City that part of the money be spent on municipal conservation projects and other efforts aimed at stretching the region’s water supplies.

The recommendation calls for the commission to send a letter to the U.S. Interior Department saying the state wants to develop its portion of the Gila. The commission must weigh the recommendation and make a final decision before Dec. 31, the deadline imposed by the Arizona Water Settlement Act.

At stake are tens of millions of dollars in federal funding and a new source of water that some see as a rare opportunity to bring relief to the southwestern corner of this drought-stricken state.

Municipal leaders and farmers from southwestern New Mexico voiced support for diverting a portion of the river, which spans parts of New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

Critics, including environmentalists and former commission Director Norman Gaume, said the cost of building reservoirs and pipelines has been estimated at more than $740 million. That’s more than five times the federal dollars that would be available for the project.

They said water rates for residents in southwestern New Mexico could skyrocket to pay for the infrastructure. “It’s dangerous, and we can’t afford it,” JoAnne Allen told the commissioners during a two-hour comment session.

Gaume and others have accused the commission of withholding data and failing to conduct studies that would determine how much water could actually be squeezed out of the proposed diversion and conservation projects. Gaume is also suing the commission over alleged violations of the state Open Meetings Act.

The commission has called the accusations baseless, saying they are part of an effort to cast unwarranted doubt on the transparency of the Gila planning process.

Under the 2004 settlement, New Mexico is entitled to an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water a year, or about 4.5 billion gallons. Up to $128 million in federal funding would be available if the state were to build a diversion system. About half that amount would be available if the state pursued other water projects in the region.