Former ISC Director says Gila River Diversion Fatally Flawed
Interstate Stream Commission admits no plan to address technical and cost issues
Santa Fe, NM – At a packed Senate Floor hearing in the New Mexico Legislature, the Senate Conservation Committee failed to advance Senate Bill 89 out of committee. SB89 “Unit Fund for Certain Water Supply Needs” would have directed the Interstate Stream Commission to spend no less than $82 million of the total amount distributed to the state under the Arizona Water Settlements Act on cost effective non-diversion alternatives to meet water supply demands in the southwest water planning region of New Mexico.
During the hearing, former Interstate Stream Commission director, Norm Gaume, stated that the ISC’s Gila River diversion is fatally flawed and likely to cost much more than current ISC cost estimates. He explained that due to the high amount of sediment in the Gila River, the current proposed design for conveyance of river water by gravity from the diversion through a 10-mile long pipeline is technically infeasible, as the pipeline would become clogged with large quantities of silt and require high cost pumps to clear out.
Gaume went on to point out that the amount of water from the proposed project will be significantly less due to the high evaporation and seepage losses from reservoirs constructed in broad sandy arroyos.
He stated that the diversion structure as currently designed is also technically flawed. “My opinion is ‘will the river obliterate it before it buries it or will it get buried first?’ It will not survive.”
Following Gaume’s testimony current ISC director, Estevan Lopez, admitted that the ISC’s current proposal wouldn’t address the fatal flaws identified by the former ISC director. “I don’t know how we will use the water and how we will pay for it. Norm could be right. [The actual cost] is way above the estimate.”
Not only is the proposed Gila River diversion likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than current estimates, but the federal subsidy provided under the AWSA is likely to be significantly less. Senator Peter Wirth, co-sponsor of SB89, received clarification from the Bureau of Reclamation prior to the hearing that only a total of $100 million (2004 year dollars) is available to New Mexico given that interest in the Lower Colorado Basin Development Fund has been significantly less than 4%, the trigger for additional funds for a Gila River diversion project.
“We now know that we have an even smaller federal subsidy available for this project, increasing the cost that New Mexicans will have to shoulder if the state moves forward with a Gila River diversion,” said Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “New Mexicans will owe $200 million – $350 million more than is currently available. These numbers are likely to go up once the real costs are available.”
Critics of the proposed diversion, represented by over 100 members from 22 sportsman, business, faith-based, recreation, and conservation groups, made the charge that the project does not make any sense economically and will impact the recreation and tourism benefits supported by the Gila River, adding that there are cost effective non-diversion approaches to meeting the long-term water needs of southwestern New Mexico.
The Interstate Stream Commission is evaluating 3 diversion projects and 12 non-diversion projects. River advocates support the non-diversion projects that SB89 would have funded.
“With six months left before a preliminary decision, the ISC admitted they don’t currently have a plan to address the fatal flaws in the Gila diversion project. It’s reckless to commit tax payer dollars to a project that will not work,” said Siwik.
“Non-diversion alternatives produce more water for less money. We can use AWSA funding to meet our water needs immediately and save everyone time and financial resources on a project that won’t work and we can’t pay for,” said Siwik.
The proposal has been highly controversial since it’s inception due to the unique nature of the Gila River.
The Gila is New Mexico’s last wild river. It’s home to five endangered species,” said Todd Schulke, senior staffer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s clear after yesterday’s hearing that the project is fatally flawed technically and economically and the ISC has no plan to fix these fatal flaws. This project is highly unlikely to ever get built,” added Schulke.