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Gila River Diversion Funding Deadline Looms

Chris M Morris via Flickr
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New Mexico authorized more than $100,000 earlier this month for engineers who are working to develop a plan to divert the Gila River for agricultural uses downstream.

As Laura Paskus reports for NMPoliticalReport.com, there’s a critical deadline for the project next year and some lawmakers are questioning whether the state can meet it and get another $60 million from the federal government. 

Paskus told KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel that the state has already spent about $17 million on the project.

Paskus: After the Interstate Stream Commission decided that New Mexico was going to move forward with building a diversion – that was back in 2014 – the state kind of delegated the authority to this quasi-governmental organization that is made up of 15 different local governments down in southwestern New Mexico. It’s that entity’s role to plan the diversion, build the diversion and then operate it.

As I understand it right now, the plan consists of some infrastructure that would be on the Gila River and its tributary, the San Francisco. And so, it’s not like there’s a blueprint for these things, it’s like, ideas for what the infrastructure might some day consist of. And the money that the state has already spent, the vast majority of that $17 million has been federal money. Most of that money has been spent on engineering contracts, attorneys, some staff time for folks at the Interstate Stream Commission, and then some money for this entity to exist. 

KUNM: There’s still about a year before the deadline for the feds to approve – how many more millions of dollars? – to go towards this project. And is that enough time for this plan to come together?

Paskus: When Congress gave New Mexico the authority to divert this water, we had ten years to decide if we were going to build a diversion. Since we decided that, we’ve had four years now to be moving ahead with some plans… (KUNM: how exactly to divert the water?)… right, and who would buy it and what environmental impacts the diversion would have, all these sorts of things. The state has to have done engineering studies and environmental studies. And then the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior has to make a decision on whether the project gets approved. But the secretary can’t do that until the project has gone through the full NEPA process, the National Environmental Policy Act.

KUNM: That’s the environmental assessments, how will this infrastructure on the river affect the environment?

Paskus: Right, and it gives the public opportunity to comment and make sure people’s voices are heard and that we understand the long term impacts of diversion on the community and the environment. But we’re already a year-and-a-half behind on those environmental studies. So it’s very difficult to envision a scenario in which New Mexico has completed all of its duties for the federal government to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

KUNM: If we don’t meet this deadline next year, can we still get that money and use it for other water management projects in the state? 

Paskus: As I understand it, we would not get that pot of money. But it would also mean that either the state would need to find a different way to pay for that diversion project, or all of the money we have spent these past four years on planning a diversion project would have been wasted. And other opportunities to spend that money on other sorts of non-diversion alternatives would have been wasted.

KUNM: The non-diversion alternatives are things like what?

Paskus: Those would be projects like efficiency, making sure your irrigation is more efficient, conservation programs, even forest restoration programs that could keep more water in the system. If we fail to meet this deadline, we would still have the water rights but it’s really unclear about what would happen. So it’s great that legislators are talking about this now instead of this time next year, but there need to be a lot of really serious discussions.

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
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