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Stream commission votes to develop New Mexico's share of water from Gila River

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — New Mexico's most powerful water planning commission voted Monday to notify the U.S. Interior Department that it wants to take advantage of federal funding to build a diversion and storage system along the Gila River, a project that is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take decades to complete.

The Interstate Stream Commission also decided during its meeting in Albuquerque that some of the money should go toward municipal conservation efforts and other projects aimed at stretching the drought-stricken region's water supplies.

State Engineer Scott Verhines, New Mexico's top water official and a member of the commission, said the point of regional water planning is to identify and implement strategies to balance supply and demand. He said the options approved by the commission will do that for cities and farms in southwestern New Mexico.

Verhines conceded he's concerned about the costs of the projects as well as the ability of the state and local governments to pay.

"However, I'm personally unwilling to preclude the development of this water for New Mexico by preventing it from going to the next steps," he said.

The commission's vote on the diversion recommendation was not unanimous. Commissioner Blane Sanchez objected and Topper Thorpe chose not to vote, a decision that spurred cheers from people in the audience who have been critical of diversion.

One woman yelled out "Boondoggle." Other members of the audience held signs that read "Save the Gila."

PHOTO: Critics of a proposal to divert a portion of the Gila River under a water settlement with Arizona pack the New Mexico sit at the Interstate Stream Commission meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. The commission faces a Dec. 31 deadline for deciding whether to accept federal funds to build a diversion and storage system along the river, which spans parts of southwestern New Mexico and Arizona. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
Critics of a proposal to divert a portion of the Gila River under a water settlement with Arizona pack the New Mexico sit at the Interstate Stream Commission meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. The commission faces a Dec. 31 deadline for deciding whether to accept federal funds to build a diversion and storage system along the river, which spans parts of southwestern New Mexico and Arizona. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The commission's action comes after more than 200 meetings, volumes of public comment, million-dollar engineering studies and a flood of complaints by environmental groups and the commission's former director that the planning process was shrouded in secrecy and that the outcome was predetermined.

The commission dismissed those claims, and a state district judge decided last week to clear the way for the panel to continue deliberating the contentious issue. The commission faced a Dec. 31 deadline under the Arizona Water Settlements Act to decide what to do with its share of the river.

Under the 2004 settlement, New Mexico is entitled to 14,000 acre-feet of water a year, or about 4.5 billion gallons. Up to $128 million in federal funding would be available if the state builds a diversion system, or about half that if the state pursues other water projects in the region.

While it's still unclear how much the water would cost consumers in southwestern New Mexico, critics are concerned the price tag of diverting the water would far outweigh what federal subsidies are available and result in skyrocketing water bills.

"A billion-dollar Gila River diversion project is a bad idea for New Mexico taxpayers and water users. It's infeasible, it's too expensive, the project will provide little to no water, and will harm the wildlife of the Gila River," said Allyson Siwik, head of the Gila Conservation Coalition.

Amy Haas, the commission's chief counsel, acknowledged that developing the water would be expensive. Estimates have put the cost of diversion and storage between $575 million and $1 billion.

"We're not going to spin this," Haas said. "The water that is at issue here, this opportunity for New Mexico to develop the additional up-to 14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water is a one-time opportunity. We're not going to see a new supply of water like this again."

Critics say there's not enough water in the river to make diversion viable and that restoring watersheds and boosting conservation would offer a bigger return on the investment. But municipal leaders in Luna and Grant counties have said water supplies are so thin in southwestern New Mexico that they have to turn businesses away.

The commission's vote is just the first step. Commission staff and consultants have already said permitting, endangered species issues and financing will present challenges.

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PHOTO: Critics of a proposal to divert a portion of the Gila River under a water settlement with Arizona pack the New Mexico sit at the Interstate Stream Commission meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. The commission faces a Dec. 31 deadline for deciding whether to accept federal funds to build a diversion and storage system along the river, which spans parts of southwestern New Mexico and Arizona. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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