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Fishing trip seals bishop’s opposition to Gila project

Bishop Oscar Cantú and about a dozen priests traded their white collars for camping gear, piled into a van and headed to the Gila River for a two-day fishing trip.

The excursion helped cement a position that Cantú, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, had been pondering for some time: that plans to divert water from the Gila River are fraught with “moral and ethical issues,” he said, and should be opposed.

Cantú had read the headlines. He knew the state was considering spending $100 million in federal subsidies – and potentially hundreds of millions more – to divert water from the Gila River for agricultural or municipal consumption, or taking a lesser sum of $66 million to pay for conservation projects.

The money is available under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act. The Interstate Stream Commission told the federal government in 2014 that it would pursue a diversion project on the river. A local body called the New Mexico CAP (Central Arizona Project) entity submitted its preferred project – a diversion – triggering a series of environmental and feasibility studies.

“To put people on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the poorest sectors of New Mexico, I find that problematic, ethically,” Cantú told me.

The sun rises over the Gila River near the site of a the proposed Gila River Diversion Project. Roman Catholic Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Diocese of Las Cruces opposes the project over "moral and ethical issues." (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)

The sun rises over the Gila River near the site of a the proposed Gila River Diversion Project. Roman Catholic Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Diocese of Las Cruces opposes the project over “moral and ethical issues.” (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)

Pope Francis has made caring for the poor a mission of his papacy. Last year, the pope published an encyclical called the Laudato Si in which he drew links between environmental justice and poverty.

“We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels,” the pope wrote. “The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits, and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”

So those lessons were also on the bishop’s mind when he and the priests went to the river the day after Easter.

The group, which included priests serving in southern New Mexico from Nigeria and Mexico, fished near the proposed diversion site on the river in the Gila-Cliff Valley. They camped near the riverbank. Half the group spoke mostly Spanish, the other half spoke Igbo, a native tongue of Nigeria. Cantú spoke about caring for creation.

“The whole day, we talked about Scripture and spirituality,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “The outdoors brings together such a diverse group of people. It crosses partisanship, all these lines. It’s like the glue that holds us all together. What is the core of us as New Mexicans? Spirituality is a core value.”

The Wildlife Federation’s coordinator in Las Cruces, Gabe Vasquez, led the priests’ trip. Vasquez, a Catholic, had been working with members of the sportsmen’s advocacy group and Audubon New Mexico to ask Cantú to consider taking a position against the diversion.

“I think it was a really powerful experience for the priests and for us, as well,” Vasquez said. “The bishop talked about the message of the pope and mentioned that within it he calls for caring for our common home.”

A week later, an op-ed Cantú wrote was published in the Las Cruces Sun-News urging the ISC and CAP entity “to consider non-diversion solutions to secure water for the residents of southwestern New Mexico, and to confer transparently with constituents before committing to a solution.”

The southern New Mexico priests may have to carry that message back carefully to their parishes. Communities in Grant and Luna counties – where the people most likely to benefit from the water, and most likely to pay for it, live – have been sharply divided on the issue for years.

The priests’ mandate is not to preach politics but to ask their congregations simply to “consider the ethical issues,” Cantú said.

As for the fishing, the bishop and priests mostly caught bait.

Cantú said he told the priests, paraphrasing a Bible verse, “Now we know how the apostles felt when they said, ‘Lord, we’ve been at it all day long and we’ve caught nothing.’ ”

UpFront is a regular front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at Go to to submit a letter to the editor.



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