November 14, 2014
Silver City, NM – At the final meeting of the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) before it makes a decision on how best to use federal funds for Gila River projects, ISC staff recommended that commissioners pursue a harmful and expensive diversion of the Gila.
Staff recommended that less than 10% of the available funds be used for non-diversion alternatives proposed by local communities, including municipal conservation, directing the large bulk of the available funds for a diversion. New Mexico taxpayers would be forced to pay the bulk of the diversion’s cost, which goes well beyond the funds available through the Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA). A final decision was scheduled for November, but a first circuit court has ordered the ISC to withhold its decision because of a legal complaint under the Open Meetings Act.
“This irresponsible recommendation in favor of using 90% of available funds for a billion-dollar Gila diversion ignores the input of scientists, economists and citizens. Diversion puts New Mexico taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, when the science shows that the promised water is just not there. The staff is throwing bones to local communities with minuscule amounts for municipal water projects, while hiding how much we’ll be forced to spend on diversion, which will be much less effective at meeting our water needs. In a state with a billion-dollar backlog in water needs, as well as huge gaps in funding for education, health care and poverty reduction, this recommendation is actually insulting,” said Allyson Siwik, director of Gila Conservation Coalition.
ISC staff recommended using $7.85 million for non-diversion alternatives generated by local communities – less than 10% of the available funds. Staff also recommended that the commission submit the letter required by the AWSA to the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, by Dec. 31, indicating that the ISC would pursue diversion.
Former ISC director Norm Gaume, in his testimony at Friday’s meeting, asked, “Why has ISC kept secret the data regarding legally divertable water from the Gila River? And why hasn’t the ISC conducted credible analysis of project yield from the Gila diversion project?” Gaume is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the ISC for violations of the Open Meetings Act. The judge in the case has issued an injunction keeping the ISC from issuing any decisions until he rules on the case. A hearing scheduled for last Wednesday was postponed.
Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, vowed to “fight this billion dollar boondoggle tooth and nail, every step of the way.”
Other members of the public also commented during the ISC meeting, but the Commission has not recorded the content of public comment in its record so far.
Sarah Boyett, a small-business owner from Silver City, told ISC commissioners, “your decision should be guided by fiscal prudence and responsibility to New Mexico taxpayers. Please pass on diversion and use AWSA money for non-diversion alternatives.”
Jason Amaro, speaking for sportsmen in New Mexico, said, “We are absolutely opposed to a Gila River diverson. Gila-area recreation provides 8,000 jobs and $613 million yearly to the local economy.”
Jim Brooks, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said “As it currently stands, ISC funded studies do not represent the best available scientific information. Selection of the diversion alternative would be without scientifically credible justification.”
Terry Timme of the Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society said, “The Cliff-Gila Valley is home to the largest concentration of breeding birds in the United States. A diversion would threaten the delicate natural balance that makes this area so special. Taxpayers’ money would be better spent on conservation alternatives that protect the ecology of the Gila River and are also an efficient use of both money and water.”