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State’s tactics on Gila plan questioned

FOR THE RECORD: This story reported that University of New Mexico researchers Jim Brooks and Dave Propst challenged the Interstate Stream Commission in a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation. Brooks and Propst note that they sent their letter as informed citizens and not as representatives of UNM. The letter was directed to the Department of the Interior, of which the Bureau of Reclamation is a part.

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Two New Mexico scientists are warning the federal government against the state’s tactics in pursuing a plan to take water from the Gila River.

University of New Mexico researchers Jim Brooks and Dave Propst say the Interstate Stream Commission has based its decision to pursue a diversion project on studies that “lack credibility” and were based on “flawed” information, according to a letter sent to the Bureau of Reclamation and obtained by the Journal.

The ISC informed the Interior Department in December of its intent to divert water from the Gila River, should the project be deemed economically and environmentally feasible. The ISC has said a diversion is viable from both standpoints.

Brooks and Propst take issue with that conclusion.

“Promulgated without rigorous and transparent peer review; planned, proposed and presented behind closed doors, (the ISC) studies lack credibility and should not be considered the ‘best available science,’ ” the letter said. “The ISC position of minimal or no impacts or even benefits of the proposal to divert and store Gila River water is based upon insufficient and flawed technical information.”

Brooks’ and Propst’s claims are similar to those voiced by Norm Gaume, the former ISC director who has been a critic of the commission’s science and its lack of transparency.

The ISC said in an emailed statement, “The premise of Brooks’ and Propst’s argument is false.”

The ISC pointed to its more than 200 public meetings on the Gila River diversion and its “exhaustive research and studies that support New Mexico receiving additional Gila River water.”

The 10-year process set forth under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act – which gave New Mexico the option of diverting additional water from the Gila River for use by four southwestern counties, and millions of dollars to do so – has been contentious as supporters of a diversion and opponents have never found common ground.

Brooks and Propst sent their letter in February. The bureau, part of the Interior Department, responded last month.

“We agree the process for implementing environmental compliance must rely upon sound science,” Leslie Meyers, bureau manager for the Lower Colorado Region, wrote in response.

The bureaus’s environmental studies “will include review of the underlying assumptions and data,” she said.

Brooks, a biologist who spent nearly 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Propst, who worked 26 years with the state Department of Game and Fish, describe themselves as “watchdogs.” As UNM researchers, both study endangered species of fish that call the Gila River home, the spikedace and loach minnow.

Their letter asks that the Interior Department take “strong leadership” in the environmental reviews that will begin once engineering plans for the diversion, still in the early stages, are further developed.

That request is important, said Allyson Siwik of the Gila Conservation Coalition, because the ISC has requested to serve as a joint-lead agency during the eventual National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, compliance studies that will be required before New Mexico can pursue a diversion.

Siwik, whose group opposes a diversion, said she worries the ISC “will use environmental studies to support what they want.”

New Mexico has the right under the 2004 settlement to divert up to 14,000 acre feet of water from Gila River annually, or about 47 percent more than is currently allotted the state. The settlement provides up to $128 million for a diversion, or about half that amount for conservation projects.

A river diversion has been estimated to cost anywhere from upwards of $300 million to nearly $1 billion. The estimates vary greatly in part because engineering studies are incomplete.


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