Gila river for Sierra Club article on Gila River diversion project

By Dan Lorimier

New Mexico’s interim Legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee met in August in Silver City to hear about the proposed Gila River diversion project.

The public and many officials have objected to the project for several reasons: There are real questions about whether a diversion can be successfully constructed; cost estimates have ballooned to $1 billion, which would have to be borne by New Mexico taxpayers and water users; and the diversion would sacrifice our state’s last free-flowing river.

About 175 concerned citizens packed the meeting room at WNMU.

The committee heard presentations by the town of Silver City, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interstate Stream Commission and the newly formed N.M. Central Arizona Project entity. Silver City chose not to become part of the CAP entity with all its uncertainties and risks. The Interstate Stream Commission reported that the project was going along fine, ignoring the layers of problems facing diversion plans. The Bureau of Reclamation had big concerns with the ability of the CAP entity to finance, build and operate the project.

Questions from committee members revealed a general sense of incredulity towards Gila diversion efforts. Questions ranged from “How can New Mexico know so little after 10 years of financial and engineering studies and now be stuck having to make huge technical, financial and environmental decisions without sufficient information?” to “Did you study the impacts to tourism, species protection and other local impacts when you produced the latest cost/benefit review”? Bureau of Reclamation’s answer to that question was a flat “no.”

When asked where the extra $900 million for this project would come from after federal funds are exhausted, CAP Chair and Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon said “That’s a good question! This water may be expensive, but we just cannot let it flow out of New Mexico. Members of the CAP all know how to use a shovel.”

Committee members seemed to leave frustrated with those answers. It is unclear how these frustrations will be played out in the 2016 Legislative Session.

State House panel asks tough questions on Gila diversion