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Editorial: Downsizing Gila diversion project a reasonable choice

The governing board of the Gila River diversion project is scaling back its plans for taking water from the state’s last relatively free-running river.

The controversial project has been debated for years, with environmentalists arguing to leave the river as it is to protect wildlife and riparian areas and local governments and business and agricultural interests seeking to access water the state is entitled to and seeing it as an economic driver for southwestern New Mexico.

In late 2014, state water managers notified the U.S. Department of the Interior the state wanted to take advantage of federal funding to divert water from the Gila. Under the Arizona Water Settlement Act, New Mexico is entitled to an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water per year from the river. (An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, the amount required to cover an acre of land with a foot of water.)

Up to $128 million in federal money is available for a diversion system if the state decides to build one.

However, that amount is a far cry from estimates for an ambitious plan favored by the state’s Interstate Stream Commission that could cost between $800 million and $1 billion, not including maintenance and operating costs.

The board of the New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project recently voted to pursue project components that would cost between $80 million and $100 million, though they would potentially yield only 4,000 acre-feet.

But the downsizing vote signals that the CAP, which is comprised of about a dozen local governments, irrigation associations and water districts, is taking a realistic view, because with only $128 million in federal funding in hand, someone else, most likely New Mexico taxpayers from throughout the state, would have to foot the rest of a potentially very large bill.

“We don’t want a $700 million project when we have $100 million,” Anthony Gutierrez, the CAP’s executive director, said. “We want, however, to design a project that we can expand on in the future.”

While that might be little comfort to environmentalists, in light of the agreement with the feds to allow planning to proceed, some sort of project will be up for evaluation and comment under the National Environmental Policy Act. Better it be a well-thought out and doable plan than a grandiose white elephant no one can afford to care for and feed.

This is a step in the right direction, even though economic and environmental reviews ultimately will determine if the Gila project becomes a reality and southwest New Mexico gets at least some of its water.

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.