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ISC votes today on controversial Gila River project

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Ten years of impassioned debate have wound down to this: New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission will vote today on whether to dam the Gila River, and no one expects it to say no.

Some 200 public meetings over the past decade and more than $10 million spent on dozens of studies have yielded no common ground between those who want the ISC to approve a plan to partially dam the river and those who vehemently oppose it.

Critics say the ISC’s decision has long been a foregone conclusion despite serious questions about the viability and cost of a project.

Advocates of a diversion project say New Mexico should jump at its chance to acquire “new” water for the four parched southwestern counties covered by the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act, which resolved a long-standing dispute between the two states.

“There will be no consensus because certain groups said they will never agree to this,” said Luna County manager Charles “Tink” Jackson. “Luna County’s statement is that water needs to come out of the river. It’s the 10th poorest county in the country, and we’re turning away businesses because we don’t have water.”

Opponents argue the costs of damming the river – both financial and environmental – are too high, and a former ISC director has said the data on which diversion projects are being evaluated is “fatally flawed.”

Norm Gaume, who ran the commission from 1997 to 2002, has repeatedly raised doubts, including how much water would realistically be available as the region continues to plod through year after year of drought.

The ISC’s decision must be communicated to the Secretary of the Interior by Dec. 31, and ISC staff has recommended the commission vote in favor.

The commission does not have to tell the federal government where exactly the dam development would be, how much the project would cost taxpayers, who will use the water or offer any information about feasibility. Those questions will ostensibly be answered in the coming years before a project is begun.

“We still don’t know who the water is for,” said Allyson Siwik of the Gila Conservation Coalition, which has fought plans to dam the river. “Is it for farmers, or is it for municipalities? Can they afford it? To me, the burden is on the ISC to tell the public what the impacts are going to be for this project.”

Under the Arizona Water Settlement Act, New Mexico may pull an additional annual average of 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila River, or about 47 percent more than the state is currently allotted. The water can be used by Luna, Hidalgo, Grant and Catron counties.

The act also provides up to $128 million in funding: $66 million for either conservation projects or a diversion, plus as much as an additional $62 million that only can be used for a diversion project. A diversion would likely include a dam, reservoir and pipeline – the cost of which is expected to far outstrip the settlement money available.

Bohannan Huston, a consultant hired by the ISC to study diversion alternatives, has pegged the capital cost of developing a diversion between $575 million and nearly $650 million. A review of diversion alternatives by the Bureau of Reclamation – the federal entity best known for building dams – concluded earlier this year that the cost of damming the river outweighs the benefits.

While the settlement allots an annual average of 14,000 acre-feet of water to New Mexico, considerably less water may be available on a yearly basis, potentially pushing up the overall cost to consumers.

An acre-foot, or roughly 326,000 gallons, can supply one to two U.S. households with all the water they need in a year. Three diversion alternatives recommended by Bohannan Huston place the cost per acre-foot of water from $9,400 to nearly $12,000.

Whatever project is selected will face federal scrutiny by the Bureau of Reclamation, including feasibility and environmental reviews that could take years and will include public comment periods.

The Gila River – often described as New Mexico’s last “wild” river, since it flows relatively free – is home to numerous endangered species, including a bird, the southwest willow fly catcher, and fish, including the spikedace and loach minnow. Other species that depend on the river have been proposed for federal protection.

A recent independent study of Bohannan Huston’s work prepared for the ISC predicted that the permitting process “will be prolonged and challenging.”

Gaume, who is suing the ISC over alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act, said “the federal laws and requirements they are going to have satisfy are going to be very difficult.”

“It’s not over,” he said.

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