Senator: Gila River diversion plan is fatally flawed
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s senior U.S. senator described as fatally flawed the plans to divert the state’s share of the Gila River as part of a multimillion-dollar water rights settlement that has spurred years of protests and legal fights.
Democrat Tom Udall said residents are rightly concerned about the costs of the proposed project. “To sacrifice the Gila to a project that the state can’t afford and that might not ever yield enough water would be irresponsible,” he said.
The senator’s comments came after a panel of state regulators delayed action on a work plan that details environmental reviews, legal services and other activities needed to shepherd the project along.
It could be September before the Interstate Stream Commission considers the plan again, but commissioners opted at a meeting Thursday to tap $948,000 in unspent funds to continue work on an environmental impact statement. A draft has been prepared, but it will not be released publicly until later this year.
Officials are facing a deadline this year to have the review completed. It would then be up to the U.S. Interior Department to grant approval.
Supporters have argued that the project is vital to supplying communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water. But environmentalists and others contend a proposed diversion project could amount to a $1 billion boondoggle.
Under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico is entitled to 14,000 acre-feet of water a year, or about 4.5 billion gallons. State officials opted to build a diversion system, as that alternative opened the door to more federal funding. The state would have received less funding had it pursued other water projects in the region.
Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, said the commission and the entity that was formed to guide how New Mexico would manage its share of the river have wasted 15 years and $15 million on “a fruitless attempt to develop a viable project.”
That money, she said, could have been spent on community water projects that would benefit residents in southwest New Mexico.
During her campaign, first-year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed to end work on the Gila diversion project , arguing there was little to show for the money that had already been spent on staff, studies and attorneys. In April, she vetoed more than $1.6 million in funding requested by the commission for diversion planning and design.