Commission should plug drain on Gila resources

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

If you believe in good government and responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars keep an eye on New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) today. The ISC will vote on whether to continue studying controversial plans for dams and diversions on the Gila River. This is the first major vote on the Gila after the U.S. Department of Interior confirmed what many New Mexicans have been saying for years: on top of their ecological costs, dam and diversion projects would be a massive waste of taxpayer dollars.

It has now been more than 15 years since Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA) providing southwestern New Mexico with funds to develop water projects in exchange for Arizona using downstream water. For years now, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity, the organization established to determine how to use those funds, has struggled to meet deadlines and failed to propose a single viable project. Multiple delays in reporting their plans to the Interior Department led to the Trump administration to ultimately deny the CAP Entity $55 million in federal construction funds in December.

Many of us are tired of watching the CAP Entity repeatedly fumble the football. After more than 15 years, the CAP Entity has effectively nothing to show for the $16 million of taxpayer money they have spent. Despite broad public opposition, the CAP Entity remains focused squarely on dam and diversion proposals for the Gila River watershed that would be so costly that the water created by them would be too expensive for local farmers and communities to purchase.

In April, the Department of Interior released its latest findings on the CAP Entity’s proposals for Gila River diversion projects. Their economic analysis shows none of the proposed projects meet the threshold of economic and financial viability. Put simply, the CAP Entity cannot afford to build or maintain any of the projects they are proposing. If we move forward with any of their plans, N.M. taxpayers and water users would be the ones on the hook to cover the difference.

It is time to move on from the Gila Diversion boondoggle before it becomes New Mexico’s Bridge to Nowhere. On Thursday, newly appointed commissioners of the Interstate Stream Commission – our state’s agency that oversees water decisions – have the opportunity to finally chart a new path forward.

I urge the ISC to follow the lead of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has repeatedly registered her informed opposition to misguided diversion or dams on the Gila River. Last year, the governor vetoed spending additional funds from the state’s budget on studies for Gila diversion proposals.

Today, the ISC will be voting on whether or not to spend another $635,000 to complete the environmental analysis of the CAP Entity’s diversion projects. I urge commissioners to vote “No” on this question. I also urge commissioners to vote against giving the New Mexico CAP Entity new powers by modifying the Joint Powers Agreement. We need to stop moving forward with a clearly broken process.

Enough is enough. It’s time for New Mexico to put our remaining AWSA funds to practical use on cost-effective, high priority community and agricultural water efficiency in southwestern New Mexico. It’s time to establish a different direction that is driven by scientific expertise and more accountability. It’s time to put the CAP Entity out of business before it throws any more of our limited taxpayer dollars at wasteful project proposals.