#GilaRiver diversion update #NM #AZ #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The northern Mexican gartersnake is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):

On July 2, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) entity that oversees projects using federal money in the New Mexico Unit Fund slashed several components from the proposed Gila River diversion. The cuts reduced the project’s price tag by about $83 million, but also the amount of water that could be diverted and used for irrigation.

It’s the latest in a decades-long saga of how federal money should be spent on water projects in the southwest corner of the state.

Joe Runyan is the CAP entity representative from the Gila Farm Irrigation Association in the Cliff-Gila Valley. He said the Gila diversion project had been “dramatically minimized” since its beginnings, making it cost-effective and beneficial to farmers and other water users in the region.

“It would be irresponsible for us not to give future generations access to this water,” Runyan said. “We should be at the table when it comes to accessing Colorado River water. The next generation will be glad we did.”

Gila diversion supporters say the diversion project will improve regional agriculture and provide a sustainable water supply for rural areas during drought. But years of back-and-forth between the CAP entity, the Interstate Stream Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation – and a looming federal deadline – have prevented much progress toward that goal.

Opponents argue the diversion is expensive and will benefit only a few irrigators at great detriment to the region’s environment.

“There’s no hope of this project on its merits, but unfortunately we live in a time when merits don’t always matter,” [Norman] Gaume said at a New Mexico Wildlife Federation lecture in Albuquerque this past week. “The whole thing is upside down. It’s just a mess, and a shame.”

New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who are all Democrats, oppose the diversion.

Commission members are appointed by the governor. Lujan Grisham hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make an appointment, but in April she did veto $1.7 million in funding requested by the ISC for Gila diversion planning and design. She also promised to end the project in her October 2018 water plan published during her campaign.

Gaume said if Lujan Grisham appoints a new Interstate Stream Commission, the Gila diversion will likely die, and the federal funds would still be available for smaller water conservation projects. But at this point, the ISC and CAP are moving forward with a business plan…

“The heart of this proposed action (the Gila diversion) is to use and preserve water for New Mexico that otherwise would be lost to Arizona, and has been for 50 years,” said CAP lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. “Our response to public officials who speak against this will suggest that they are doing something unprecedented by letting water go to a neighboring state.”

An economic analysis prepared by a federal consultant for Reclamation as part of the June draft environmental impact statement says the diverted water could support high-value, “thirsty” crops for farmers.

Those crops include lavender, hemp, potatoes, pecans and grapes. Many farmers in the region currently grow lower-value crops like alfalfa and cotton.

Revenue from the new crops might offset the estimated high price for farmers to access the diverted water. But the latest project changes won’t be able to be divert and store as much water, so that original crop revenue estimate likely won’t be as high.

Four project sites on the Gila could divert as much as 14,000 acre-feet (4.6 billion gallons) annually to four counties in southwest New Mexico: Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo. That’s enough water to supply about 57,000 Albuquerque homes in a year…

Fourteen native fish species live in the Gila River basin, including the endangered Gila trout. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher bird, loach minnow and the northern Mexican garter snake also call the river home…

The Interstate Stream Commission will visit proposed Gila diversion sites in August.

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

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