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Third strike should spell doom for Gila River diversion


The decision 16 years ago to choose diversion of the Gila River over water conservation and restoration projects resulted in a promise that was always going to remain out of reach: new water.

Local government officials from Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties who were selected for the Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity and made the fateful decision had promised area farmers up to 14,000 acre feet of “new water.”

They would no longer have to make do with traditional crops like cotton and alfalfa. The “new water” would give growers access to more lucrative crops like hemp, potatoes, pecans and grapes.

The CAP Entity was spawned from the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, which was intended to resolve a decades-old dispute over Gila River water that included not only the states of New Mexico and Arizona but also Native American tribes as well.

It was a classic western water war. In 1938, New Mexico Gov. John E. Miles ordered the State Police to cut locks to the river’s headgates and take over control of the water. But that solution was only temporary. In 1968, Congress passed its first bill attempting to resolve the issue.

The 2004 bill made millions of dollars available to the state, and gave the CAP Entity a choice as to how to use it. They choose diversion, despite warnings that past attempts to dam the river had failed because water levels weren’t consistently high enough.

Norm Gaum, a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission and an opponent of the diversion project, explained in a radio interview last year that New Mexico has the most junior water rights on the river. That means all other users have to be satisfied first and all of the water we divert has to be paid for ahead of time.

The decision to go with a diversion project started the clock on a 10-year time period to come up with a plan. When the 10 years were up, the CAP Entity asked for an extension. And it was granted, until 2019, when the latest request was denied by officials with the U.S. Interior Department.

That was the first piece of bad news for the CAP Entity. The second came last year when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed $1.7 million that had been requested by the Interstate Stream Commission for the diversion project. Former Gov. Susana Martinez had been willing to keep funding the project long after it had become obvious that promises of new water for the state would never materialize, but Lujan Grisham was not. 

Then came the third strike, a recent decision by the Interstate Stream Commission itself, which now has new members appointed by Lujan Grisham, to finally accept reality and pull the plug on diversion funding.

It is estimated that the CAP Entity spent some $16 million in pursuit of a diversion plan, and another $56 million in potential funding was lost when the request for a deadline extension was denied.

The Gila River diversion plan faced determined opposition every step of the way from those wanting to save the state’s last free-flowing river. In the end, however, it was not politics that led to the plan’s demines, but rather hydrology.

There is no new water. There is, however, still about $70 million in federal money available for projects to make better use of the water we have. The Interstate Stream Commission must ensure that no more federal funding is wasted.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.