Gila River, photo by Alan Stark

Allyson Siwik, Chapter Executive Committee Gila Resources Information Project

As the dust settles on the 2015 legislative session, I’m heartened by many of our state senators who voted to hold the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) accountable for its misguided and wasteful plan to divert the Gila River. The ISC is spending millions of dollars planning a massive diversion project that is unlikely to ever be built and may yield little water — at a likely cost of more than a billion dollars. These funds should instead be spent on cost-effective community water projects that will meet long-term water needs without harming New Mexico’s last free-flowing river that contributes significantly to our hunting, fishing, and recreation economy.

The ISC’s Gila planning process has lacked transparency and meaningful public participation, and the agency has been under fire for illegal actions related to contracting and conflicts of interest. A suite of Gila River-related bills introduced this session would have provided legislative oversight, prevented wasteful use of public funds on the diversion project, and reformed the ISC’s structure. SB 455 (Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana) and SB 542 (Sen. Sander Rue, R-Bernalillo) required public participation, greater transparency and accountability from the ISC in its expenditures of Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) federal funding, as well as disclosure of key information related to a Gila River diversion project, such as financing, affordability, and water yield.

The Gila diversion planning transparency and disclosure bills, combined into a committee substitute for SB455 and SB542, passed the Senate Conservation Committee on a vote of 6-3. Although not heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee, this bill sent a strong message to the ISC that the Legislature and the public demand full disclosure, public participation and fiscal responsibility in its Gila planning process. 

SB 461 (Sen. Howie Morales, D-Catron, Grant, Socorro) directed the Interstate Stream Commission to spend no less than $77 million of AWSA funding on non-diversion alternatives to meet high-priority community water needs in southwest New Mexico. Although tabled in Senate Conservation Committee, Morales’ bill put pressure on the ISC to allocate $2.1 million in AWSA funding to the Grant County Water Commission Regional Water Supply project in late February. The ISC had tabled the funding allocation decision on this project at its November 24, 2014, AWSA decision meeting. The Grant County project will develop a new well at the Grant County Airport and construct an inter-community pipeline to serve current and future water needs of 26,000 people in the Mining District and Silver City. Water withdrawal will be balanced by return flow credit from the wastewater treatment plant, so there will be no net depletion to the aquifer.

SB467, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) would have restructured appointments to the ISC and required minimum qualifications for members, in order to improve political and geographic balance and multi-stakeholder representation and bring a minimum of professional expertise to the commission. The ISC is responsible for formulating important state public policies pertaining to water, the need for public investments in our water supplies, and use of water. 

A reconfigured commission with professional experience and diverse perspectives on water resources management and with balanced political interests is needed to move beyond the ISC’s Gila River planning failures. New Mexico needs, and we as citizens deserve, a more professional commission that will provide improved leadership and guidance to ISC staff on these multimillion-dollar water projects and contribute to making the best water planning and management decisions for all New Mexicans.

The bill passed the Senate floor late in the session on a 28-13 vote but didn’t make it through the House. Thanks to our legislative champions and to all of you who participated this session in supporting efforts to bring transparency and disclosure to the Gila River planning process and to reform the ISC into an effective and balanced water-planning agency.

Featured photo by Alan Stark

Sunshine on the Gila River process