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Federal Agreement on Gila River Triggers Review
In approving a procedural agreement with state water managers in November 2015, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior emphasized that final approval of a proposed diversion of New Mexico’s Gila River will require a thorough environmental review, including looking at water-management alternatives, before any next steps are taken on the controversial project. The DOI signed an agreement with the newly formed New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity (CAP Entity), which sets in motion a process for evaluating the merits of the two-phase river diversion that includes both economic and ecological considerations. The review process will not conclude until 2019.
In a watershed where Aldo Leopold established our nation’s first official Wilderness Area, the Gila, a snow-fed tributary of the Colorado River, provides habitat for wildlife, including seven endangered species, and numerous archaeological sites. It is a paradise for outdoor recreation and tourism, as well as an economic driver for local communities. Conservationists would like to keep the state’s last wild river free and undammed. They believe that the review process will show that the diversion is not feasible environmentally or financially and that the area’s long-term water needs can be met through conservation, groundwater management, water recycling and watershed restoration.
Federal funding of $100 million, based on the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), has been earmarked for the two-phase project, which is estimated to cost from $775 million to $1 billion. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) has already been using AWSA funding to conduct studies and contract engineers, consultants and attorneys. “Recent findings by the independent Project on Government Oversight have estimated the costs of the diversion, as proposed by the CAP Entity, at $1 billion,” said Sen. Howie Morales of Silver City. “New Mexico taxpayers would be on the hook for 90 percent of it. Our tax dollars would clearly be better spent elsewhere.”
Three recent New Mexico water projects—the Buckman Diversion, Albuquerque’s drinking-water project, and the Navajo Reservoir—were two-and-a-half times over budget.
The Gila diversion, which technical experts say would take decades to complete, would divert up to 14,000 acre-feet of water annually, moving it around mountainsides through a series of dams, concrete canals, pipelines and three reservoirs. The water would ultimately be moved to Deming. Diversion supporters, including the ISC, appointed by Gov. Martínez, claim the project is vital to supplying water to drought-bound communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico.
The Gila trout, a pretty fish that has a yellow or coppery head and black spots, grows to an average length of 11.8 inches and a maximum length of 21.7 inches. It is native to tributaries of the Gila River, but, by the late 1950s, fishing for the trout had been banned because its numbers and range had been seriously curtailed due to competition and hybridization with non-native fish and because of habitat loss due to wildfires, human destruction, overgrazing by livestock and agricultural irrigation and diversion.
Wildlife biologists have been working to reestablish the Gila trout in New Mexico and Arizona waters. On the endangered list until 2006, it is listed as threatened now, and limited fishing is permitted. It has so far been established in 62 miles of stream.
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