Monday, November 09, 2015

Will New Mexico Lose Its Last Wild River?

Swackhamer is a member of Southwestern New Mexico Audubon, the state’s oldest Audubon chapter, which was formed in the mid-1960s to protest a proposed dam just upstream from here. That effort was successful, and over the past five decades this stretch of the Gila has managed to escape the fate of other southwestern rivers that have been dammed and diverted to supply cities like Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque. That may change. This month, the state hopes to get approval from the Interior Department to move forward with a plan to build a major diversion on the Gila that will siphon billions of gallons of water each year away from the river and the habitats it supports, and pipe it to farms and towns across southwestern part of the state. Water deals are never simple in the West, and the Gila diversion project is no exception. In 2004, the Arizona Water Settlements Act, a federal law dealing with water rights in the Southwest, granted New Mexico permission to divert up to about 4.5 billion gallons annually from the Gila. (Any specific diversion proposal by the state would still be subject to the normal federal review process, including an Environmental Impact Statement.) It also promised $66 million in federal funding for any new water projects the state chose to take on, plus an additional $34 to $62 million to support the capital costs of a diversion project, should the state choose to pursue one.  For the past decade, environmental groups have urged New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, which was charged with making the decision, to use the federal funds for water conservation initiatives, like improving irrigation efficiency and recycling wastewater. But in the end the opportunity to stake a claim on the Gila’s water proved too great a temptation, and last fall the ISC announced its intention to build a diversion. “This opportunity for New Mexico to develop the additional up-to-14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water is a one-time opportunity,” the acting ISC director said at the time. “We're not going to see a new supply of water like this again." Now, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has until November 23 to sign an agreement with the ISC that will set the environmental review process into motion...more

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