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Gila River diversion plans may get downsized

A less costly alternative to a multibillion-dollar plan to divert water from the Gila River has been proposed by a group representing local governments and irrigation districts. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

A less costly alternative to a multibillion-dollar plan to divert water from the Gila River has been proposed by a group representing local governments and irrigation districts. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Billion-dollar plans for diverting water from the Gila River may be off the table for now after the project’s governing body opted to limit its analysis to cheaper, smaller scale alternatives.

Discussions over how the state could – or whether it should – pull water from the Gila River have been a decade in the making, and the decision to scale back appears to be a rebuke of the Interstate Stream Commission’s aspirations for a larger scale project that could deliver the full amount of water owed to the state.

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New Mexico is entitled to an additional 14,000 acre-feet of water per year under the Arizona Water Settlement Act, and the act allots the state up to $128 million to pursue a diversion. But the most contentious plans have pinned construction costs between $800 million and $1 billion at the high end, not counting maintenance or operating expenses.

The New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, entity – a board made up of about a dozen local governments, irrigation associations and water districts in southwestern New Mexico – voted last week to pursue only those project components that would cost between $80 million and $100 million and which could yield a fraction of the allotted water, potentially 4,000 acre-feet.

An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, or the amount required to cover an acre of land with a foot of water.

Anthony Gutierrez, the New Mexico CAP entity’s executive director, called the board’s decision “a huge new direction.”

“We don’t want a $700 million project when we have $100 million,” he said. “We want, however, to design a project that we can expand on in the future. We don’t know what this area is going to look like in 50 years.”

The decision has brought little relief to environmentalists who say they fear that any diversion of water – particularly a diversion that would be scaled up over time – could have devastating impacts on the river ecology.

“The way this process is going I can’t imagine a diversion we would support because there doesn’t seem to be any regard for species or riverside vegetation,” said Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity who advocates for Gila River protections. “Water withdrawals anywhere can have negative impacts on the river and the species that depend on it.”

The CAP entity is up against a deadline: On July 11, the board must tell the Bureau of Reclamation which diversion alternatives it intends to pursue, triggering the start of a multifaceted evaluation required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

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The board’s decision to scale back the project could breed tensions with the ISC going forward. The CAP entity has authority to determine the design of the Gila River diversion but the ISC, which has a non-voting member on the CAP entity board, holds the purse strings and directs the engineering contractor.

The ISC and CAP entity “are working together successfully to meet the deadlines in the AWSA,” an ISC spokeswoman said in an emailed response to questions.

“The ISC hasn’t lost sight of the fact that New Mexico still has the right to keep 14,000 acre-feet but we do want a feasible project,” Gutierrez said. “We’re not necessarily in conflict, but the CAP entity wants a project that is real.”

The state has used up some of the funding available to pay for studies. Somewhere between $10 million and $15 million of the settlement act money has been spent or committed, the board’s attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said during the meeting.

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