This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAPE, directed its engineering contractor to continue studying only those projects that would cost $80-100 million to build. That’s how much funding New Mexico anticipates receiving from the federal government to develop water from the Gila and perhaps its tributary, the San Francisco River.
With that vote, the NMCAPE officially rejected earlier large-scale plans, including one with an estimated billion dollar price tag. By tamping down the budget, the board also acknowledged that the project will be smaller – and not one capable of delivering all 14,000 acre feet of water the state has rights to under federal law.
“We just want to create something new, that will be a benefit to New Mexico,” NMCAPE chair Darr Shannon told NMID. A Hidalgo County Commissioner, Shannon represents the Hidalgo Soil and Water Conservation District on the board. “We have visions of helping New Mexico’s municipalities and smaller communities, and to create a revenue source.”
Pete Domenici, Jr., the board’s attorney, told members during Tuesday’s NMCAPE meeting if the entity goes over the $100 million in federal money to plan, study, and build its project, “I don’t know where the money is going to come from.”
But it’s not clear how much of that estimated $100 million will be left in the fund when the time comes to break ground. The state has already spent millions on engineering contractors, attorneys, salaries, grants, meetings, and studies. Domenici estimated between $10 million and $15 million has been spent when asked by NMID, but deferred to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s (ISC) Craig Roepke for a more precise number.
Roepke would not answer during the meeting, citing the agency’s media policy. The agency’s Public Information Officer Melissa Dosher later wrote in an email that only $5,647,077.26 has been spent. But that figure does not include contracts for services or grants that have been signed but not yet paid.
Critics of the diversion greeted the board’s decision to pare back plans as good news, but said much uncertainty remains.
“We’re certainly pleased that they seem to be saying ‘no’ to the very expensive diversion up by Turkey Creek in the roadless area, but there are still lots of unanswered questions and potentially, some significant impacts in terms of cost as well as the environment,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “We even heard the CAP Entity saying they’re going to have problems paying for the operation and management costs of pumping; there are still a lot of questions in terms of where they’re heading.”
Shannon and some other board members, as well as executive director Anthony Gutierrez, point out that once the project has been built, they could generate revenue by selling water. No buyers have been identified, but Gutierrez says that’s not a concern right now. Water is always valuable, he says, especially during times of drought.
Plans still on the table range from storing Gila River water either in a reservoir on Spar Canyon or in ponds on existing farmland – to diverting water from the river and storing it underground for later use. Another option would rely on existing infrastructure owned by mining company Freeport-McMoRan, including the Bill Evans Reservoir.
This week, the ISC also presented its work plan budget on the Gila for Fiscal Year 2017. Exceeding $12 million, the estimated budget includes engineering services ($1.85 million), environmental compliance studies ($810,000), public outreach services ($16,000), legal services ($340,000), and grant funding for projects like irrigation improvements and municipal water conservation ($9.1 million.)
The Gila project has been decades in the making.
In a Supreme Court decision nearly seven decades ago, New Mexico was promised additional water rights from the Colorado River, but only if someone in Arizona were willing to trade Colorado River water for water from the Gila or San Francisco rivers. The 2004 Arizona Waters Settlement Act allowed New Mexico to trade with Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community – and gave state officials 10 years to decide if they would meet water demands in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo, and Catron counties through efficiency and conservation or by building a diversion on the Gila River.
In 2014, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted to pursue the diversion alternative.
The NMCAPE was formed in 2015. It works in cooperation with the Interstate Stream Commission, but is its own, separate agency. Each NMCAPE board member represents a county, city, agency, or irrigation district that has committed to building, financing, and operating the diversion.
To receive all of the federal funding promised under the 2004 act, the state has until December 2019 to come up with a plan and complete studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act.