Interstate Stream Commission Moves Ahead with Gila River Diversion Project
At the conclusion of a 10-year planning process geared toward developing water from New Mexico’s last wild river, no one was surprised when on Nov. 24 the nine-member Interstate Stream Commission voted unanimously to notify the U.S. Secretary of the Interior that New Mexico will move forward with planning for a Gila River diversion project under the Arizona Water Settlements Act. What was surprising was that there weren’t more questions asked and concerns raised by the Commission, given the overwhelming evidence that a diversion project is infeasible and unaffordable, that it faces substantial public opposition, and that serious charges are pending of Open Meetings Act violations undertaken in order to keep from the public critical information and plans related to the project.
Conservationists from across the state are calling on Governor Susana Martínez to intervene and thus save New Mexico taxpayers and water users from this fiscally irresponsible and ecologically harmful proposal. They point out that, alternatively, non-diversion projects can be implemented with AWSA funding to meet southwestern New Mexico’s long-term water needs at less than a tenth of the cost of a diversion project. In 2004, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) that authorized diversion of the Gila River if New Mexico agreed to buy water from Arizona to replace what our state takes out of the river. About $100-million (in 2004 dollars) is available through the AWSA. Some $66-million of this non-reimbursable funding can be used to meet local water needs in southwestern New Mexico without diverting the Gila River.
In early 2014, former ISC Director Norm Gaume became involved in the Gila issue and brought to light important information and analyses that show that a diversion project is expensive. He concluded that the project would run over $1-billion (for construction, exchange, operation, maintenance, and replacement costs), be unaffordable, and yield little to no water. Representing a consensus among 50 scientists from a range of disciplines, the Gila River Flow Needs Assessment released in August concluded that a Gila River diversion will negatively impact the hydrology and ecology of the river.
Over the past year, public opposition to the project was demonstrated by the large numbers of anti-diversion public commenters at ISC meetings this fall (contrasted with very few supporter attendees), along with the numerous letters to the editor and editorials, rallies, and thousands of petition signatures, e-mail messages and letters to the ISC and the governor against the diversion. According to a poll conducted last year, 85% of New Mexicans surveyed, regardless of political party, are unwilling to pay for a diversion project and instead support non-diversion alternatives to meet our water needs.
Despite the facts and the opposition, only Commissioner Blane Sanchez voted against the ISC staff recommendation to move forward with the diversion project, explaining that he was concerned about how the high cost of the project was going to be financed and that he hadn’t heard from any local officials or legislators about their willingness and ability to pay for the project. Topper Thorpe, ISC commissioner from Gila, abstained from the vote given his conflict of interest, since he stands to personally gain from a diversion project that would supply water to irrigators in the Cliff-Gila Valley.
Although the ISC did allocate less than 10% of available AWSA funding to some of the non-diversion alternatives, moving forward with diversion means that AWSA funding that could be used to fully fund these cost-effective water supply alternatives will instead be frittered away in coming years by paying for engineers and consultants who will continue developing designs and plans for a diversion. At the end of the day when a diversion project has been defeated, southwestern New Mexico will have no federal funding for critically needed local community water projects.
Compounding the disappointment over the ISC’s decision are the significant questions raised about the legitimacy of the AWSA planning process, given charges of Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations by the ISC as well as by the local Gila- San Francisco Water Commission. Former ISC Director Gaume this fall brought a lawsuit against the ISC, alleging numerous OMA violations by the ISC related to AWSA decisions made outside of public meetings. That case goes to trial in early April.
The Gila Conservation Coalition recently submitted a complaint to the New Mexico Attorney General to investigate three Open Meetings Act violations committed by the local Gila-San Francisco Water Commission related to financing a Gila River diversion project, AWSA project prioritization, and intervention in Gaume’s OMA lawsuit. The GSFWC took action on all three of these issues outside of a public meeting. The Attorney General’s office is now investigating.
Additionally, the public has had to resort to Inspection of Public Records Act requests to find out what state and local officials are doing on important AWSA issues. In the case of the GSFWC, backroom business activities have included expense-paid trips to Denver to meet with the GK Baum investment banking firm in order to discuss how to finance a Gila diversion. The diversion financing plan was presented to the ISC before it had even been discussed at a public meeting of the GSFWC. This lack of transparency undermines public trust in government and has reinforced the widespread belief that the ISC’s planning process has been a sham all along.
The ISC decision was the “rst in a number of AWSA planning process milestones. The next significant decision point is execution of a New Mexico Unit Agreement, which must occur within one year of the governor notifying the Secretary of Interior that our state will build a diversion project. If that agreement is signed, the NEPA process will commence. A Record of Decision must be obtained by 2019. The diversion project has significant regulatory hurdles to overcome during the NEPA process, in addition to enormous technical and financing challenges. As we move into a new phase under the AWSA, GRIP and its partners in the Gila Conservation Coalition and elsewhere will draw on sound science and technical information as we continue our fight. As appropriate, we’ll use all legal means necessary to ensure that a diversion project is never built on the Gila River.
TAKE ACTION NOW!
There is still time to urge Gov. Susana Martínez to say “NO” to a billion-dollar Gila River diversion boondoggle. She can intervene now and save New Mexico taxpayers and water users from a project that is infeasible, hugely expensive, and would harm the Gila River.
Gov. Martínez can tell the Secretary of the Interior that our state will instead use its available federal funding to implement non-diversion projects in order to meet southwestern New Mexico’s water needs immediately, effectively, and at a fraction of the cost of a diversion.
Please call Gov. Martínez TODAY at (505) 476-2200