- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Interior on Monday reached an agreement with water managers in New Mexico, marking the next step in a long, contentious process to develop the state’s share of the Gila River.

The department’s approval came despite opposition from environmentalists and others who are concerned that a proposed diversion project along the river could amount to a $1 billion boondoggle.

Supporters argue that the project is vital to supplying communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water.

Interior Department officials described the signing of the agreement as procedural, saying the agency does not have the discretion to deny further evaluation of the Gila project.

A decision on whether to move forward will follow extensive environmental and economic feasibility reviews, which could take years to complete.

“There is no green light for any project at this point in time,” Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor said. “There are a lot of controlling laws that have to be followed now, and this is kicking off that process.”

The Bureau of Reclamation will take the lead, weighing a proposed diversion and other alternatives against provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws.

Under requirements for federal water projects, the agency also must review the economics of the project, national economic indicators and the ability of affected irrigation districts and communities to absorb and pay for the costs.

Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, is hoping for a robust review.

“If the environmental compliance process is honest, it’s highly unlikely that a diversion would be built due to huge costs, technical infeasibility and damage to the river and the seven endangered species that depend on it,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said the project is fiscally and environmentally sound and that it would result in a 50 percent increase in the water that’s legally available today for communities in Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., questioned the feasibility of the project, saying federal budget constraints would make finding funding beyond what’s allotted in the settlement extremely unlikely.

“The Gila is the last free-flowing main-stem river in New Mexico,” Udall said. “To sacrifice it to a project that the state can’t afford and that might not ever yield enough water, would be irresponsible.”

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission last year informed the Interior Department that the state wanted to take advantage of federal funding to divert water from the river, with some of the money going toward municipal conservation efforts and other projects aimed at stretching the drought-stricken region’s water supplies.

Under the Arizona Water Settlements Act, 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.

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