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New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission discusses Gila River diversion dilemma

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — New Mexico is no closer to deciding what to do with its share of water from the Gila River after experts and advocates weighed in Tuesday on more than a dozen proposals that call for everything from building dams and reservoirs along the river to boosting conservation among farmers and residents.

The Interstate Stream Commission has to make a decision by the end of the year.

The problem is none of the proposals have risen to the top as the best option despite more than 200 meetings, volumes of public comment and $3 million spent on studies over the past decade.

"At the present time, the staff has found no showstoppers," said Estevan Lopez, the commission's director.

He said it wouldn't be prudent for the commission to make any preliminary determinations before the last round of studies are complete in September and October.

PHOTO: Dozens of people gather for a discussion about the fate of the Gila River during an Interstate Stream Commission meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. The commission has until the end of the year to decide what New Mexico will do with its share of the Gila River under the Arizona Water Settlement Act. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
Dozens of people gather for a discussion about the fate of the Gila River during an Interstate Stream Commission meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. The commission has until the end of the year to decide what New Mexico will do with its share of the Gila River under the Arizona Water Settlement Act. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

At stake are tens of millions of dollars in federal funding and a new source of water that some see as a rare opportunity to bring relief to the southwestern corner of this drought-stricken state.

Under a 2004 settlement with Arizona, New Mexico is entitled to an average of 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 bill for diverting the water would end up surpassing what federal subsidies are available and result in skyrocketing water bills for the region's residents.

"The evidence is mounting that a Gila River diversion doesn't make fiscal sense and non-diversion alternatives such as municipal and agricultural conservation, efficiency and sustainable groundwater management can meet our future water needs at a fraction of the cost," Allyson Siwik of the Gila Conservation Coalition told commissioners Tuesday.

An analysis done by the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal government's water management agency, shows construction costs for diverting and piping the water as far south as Deming could total more than $500 million. Millions more would be needed each year for maintaining and operating the system.

Gila San Francisco Water Commissioner Vance Lee and Luna County Commissioner Javier Diaz told commissioners there's a need for more water in southwestern New Mexico. Lee talked about the river going dry before reaching the canals that feed farms in the Virden Valley, and Diaz said he gets calls from residents every week about their drinking water wells going dry.

"We know the water will be expensive, but we also know we must find a way to keep it in New Mexico," Lee said. "I can tell you that water is worth a lot if you don't have any."

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PHOTO: Allyson Siwik, right, of the Gila Conservation Coalition testifies about the economic and environmental costs of diverting a portion of the Gila River during an Interstate Stream Commission meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. The commission has until the end of the year to decide what New Mexico will do with its share of the Gila River under the Arizona Water Settlement Act. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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