Conservationists critical of latest plan for Gila River diversion

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Conservationists critical of latest plan for Gila River diversion

Proposal is ill conceived, ecologically harmful, expensive and unfair

July 20, 2018, Silver City, NM – On behalf of 37 local, state, and national conservation, sportsmen, faith, and outdoor recreation organizations, the Gila Conservation Coalition submitted today scoping comments on the ecologically harmful and costly Gila River diversion project.

The diversion proposal could significantly impact the Gila’s threatened and endangered species and riparian habitat, will cost several times more than the federal construction subsidy provided, and will unfairly withhold NM Unit Fund dollars from community water projects that could meet the water needs of 60,000 people in southwest New Mexico.

Proposed by the NM Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity, a group of 14 representatives from local governments, community ditches, and soil and water conservation districts in southwest New Mexico that have responsibility for project design, the Gila diversion (NM Unit) proposal is facing a legal deadline under the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA).

The Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, joint leads for the formal review and approval process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), initiated preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Gila River diversion project on June 12. Public scoping comments are due today.

“It’s unfortunate that the NEPA process was started as the NM CAP Entity’s proposed action is poorly defined and continued to change even after the scoping period started. It’s been impossible to fully understand the specifics of the project. This lack of detailed information has made it difficult for the public to develop meaningful comments to inform the draft EIS,” stated Gila Conservation Coalition Executive Director Allyson Siwik.

Flowing out of America’s first Wilderness Area, the Gila River is New Mexico’s last major undammed river. It’s home to seven threatened or endangered species, such as the loach minnow, spikedace, Southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, and is proposed for long-term protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“Given that the diversion proposal is little better than a cartoon it’s hard to tell, but models show that this latest version of the diversion could actually increase drying of the river,” said Todd Schulke, co-founder of Center for Biological Diversity. “This could cause disappearance of riverside forests important to endangered birds and take away water from endangered fish that are on the cusp of extinction,” added Schulke.

After more than a decade of planning and expenditure of $15 million on studies, consultants and lawyers, the proposed diversion remains too expensive, unaffordable and unfair.

The federal subsidy available under the AWSA will not cover the full cost of the proposed diversion, leaving a gap of tens of millions of dollars for citizens to cover. Additionally, project water is too expensive for farmers to buy. Current ditch fees in the Cliff-Gila Valley are approximately $20 per acre. Project water cost will run at least $1,500 per acre per year, calling into question the project economics and the ability of farmers to pay for the new AWSA water.

“We are very concerned about the fundamental unfairness in how AWSA funds are being used. The proposed action will require spending all the available AWSA funds for a small amount of new irrigation water to benefit approximately 200 irrigators and Freeport-McMoRan. It is wrong to provide the world’s largest publicly traded copper company with this government subsidy that comes at the expense of water security for 60,000 people of southwest New Mexico. We can immediately spend AWSA funding on priority community water projects that will meet our water needs far into the future without building a costly Gila diversion that requires massive ongoing public subsidy to benefit a very few,” stated GCC’s Siwik.

The Gila Conservation Coalition’s scoping comments and exhibits can be downloaded from the following link: https://tinyurl.com/yd4sg2kx