ALBUQUERQUE – The U.S. Interior Department has decided not to extend a deadline involving a proposal to divert the Gila River to aid rural communities, a move that cuts off access to more than $50 million in construction funds.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, and environmentalists praised the recent decision, saying the river that flows through southwestern New Mexico and into Arizona will be protected.
“We cannot sacrifice the Gila – and the benefits it provides to our tourism and outdoor recreation economy – to this project,” Udall said. “I urge all parties involved to move forward to invest in more cost-effective, high-priority community and agricultural water and restoration projects in southwestern New Mexico.”
The fight over the Gila has raged for years. Under a 2004 settlement, an entity overseeing the project had faced a deadline this month to have an environmental review completed and approved by federal officials in order to free up the additional funding.
Timothy Petty, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, stated in a Dec. 20 letter that the “slow pace of progress” reflected a lack of urgency and priority for delivering water to rural communities that could be served by a diversion project.
“Even today, a feasible project with necessary funding and contractual commitments has not been identified to enable project success,” he wrote. “It’s a disappointment this project, that would bring critical water supplies to rural communities in New Mexico, has faced such scrutiny and a lack of support.”
Supporters have argued that the project is vital to supplying communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water as drought persists. But environmentalists contend the proposed diversion project could amount to a $1 billion boondoggle.
Under the 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.
Despite the missed deadline, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity still has more than $60 million it could spend on a diversion and regional water projects.
Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, said it’s time to focus on using the money on cost-effective projects that don’t involve diversion. She said her group is looking forward to working with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to determine the best way to spend the funds.
The Democratic governor is among those opposed to diverting the river. In April, she vetoed more than $1.6 million in funding requested by the Interstate Stream Commission for diversion planning and design. She followed up in September with a letter to the Interior Department, urging that the deadline not be extended.