Gila River legislation stalls in Senate committee

February 14, 2014 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is no closer to deciding what to do with its share of the Gila River after a measure aimed at addressing the dilemma over whether to tap the free-flowing river or focus on related conservation efforts stalled Thursday night in a Senate committee.

New Mexico has rights to some of the Gila and one of its tributaries under a 2004 settlement with Arizona. The deadline for deciding what to do with the water is at the end of the year.

If New Mexico doesn’t use the water, it will keep flowing into Arizona and the state will forgo millions of dollars in federal funds available for construction of a diversion project.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, has proposed [auth] legislation that would require the Interstate Stream Commission to spend a chunk of the federal dollars available under the agreement to boost water supplies in the region by conserving water, reusing effluent, practicing conservation agriculture and restoring watersheds.

Wirth said Thursday this was the last chance for lawmakers — and their constituents — to have any choice in what’s ultimately decided by the commission.

“I think this would be a very different discussion if we had a project on the table that could work from an engineering standpoint and we knew where the dollars were going to come from,” he said.

After more than two hours of testimony and debate Thursday night, the committee failed to reach consensus on whether to advance Wirth’s bill.

Former commission director Norm Gaume testified that he traveled to the Gila last weekend and visited some of the sites where pipelines would be tunneled to get the water from the river through the Continental Divide and to a series of shallow reservoirs for storage.

“This project won’t work,” Gaume said of the diversion proposal, pointing to engineering issues, concerns of sediment, evaporation and infiltration as well as uncertainties about the cost. “My motivation is to try to prevent a horrible mistake — and that would be to spend a lot of money on a diversion that doesn’t work.”

Estevan Lopez, the current director of the commission, acknowledged that the dilemma over the Gila involves two of the most contentious issues in the arid West — water and money — and that no consensus has been reached despite years of trying.

Lopez denied claims that the commission was going to destroy the river.

“We’re trying to plan for our future, and we’re trying to do it in a responsible manner,” he said, noting the importance of a potential new water source.

Lopez also acknowledged that the commission needs to address some of the engineering issues raised by Gaume and other critics who attended the hearing.

Environmentalists and sportsmen contend any dams or diversions would harm the area’s wildlife and limit opportunities for recreation. But farmers throughout the region say the Gila would offer a backup source of water as dry conditions persist.

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