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Editorial: NM should carefully weigh costs, benefits of Gila project

It makes a certain amount of sense not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but making use of that gift should also make sense and be affordable.

Last week, the Interstate Stream Commission accepted $62 million in federal startup money for a controversial water project in southwestern New Mexico.

The Gila River project, whose preliminary cost estimates vary wildly, would divert water from the river during times of high flow, store it in reservoirs and pipe it to as yet unidentified users. Supporters say it is needed for nearby communities and for agriculture. Opponents say it will be far too expensive – up to $1 billion – for a small amount of water, and possible damage to the riparian environment and its species.

Under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act, New Mexico is entitled to divert up to an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Gila. Commission staff have acknowledged that evaporation and reservoir seepage will eat up nearly half the water before it ever reaches any farms or cities and the actual yield likely would be between 6,000 and 8,000 acre-feet.

Now the process of refining plans and coming up with a clearer cost estimate, and whether the yield is worth it, can start. If the state determines the project is too expensive, it isn’t committed to build it.

There’s no question water, for which there will be future demand, is a precious commodity in the arid West. The state should move carefully and base any final decision on what’s best for New Mexico taxpayers.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.