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Cissy McAndrew and Howie Morales join the chorus of voices against diversion

By Susan Dunlap, Silver City Sun News

SILVER CITY >> The issue continues to brew in Sante Fe. Will the state of New Mexico and the federal government divert the Gila River or will Grant County implement low-cost conservation alternatives?

Two weeks ago, state senator and democratic hopeful for governor, Howie Morales, who represents Grant County in the Legislature, joined the growing chorus calling upon the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) to adopt conservation alternatives by signing onto Senate Bills 89 and 90, which require the ISC to secure all the funding necessary before they recommend diverting the Gila River to the Bureau of Reclamation.

In addition, the bills require New Mexico to spend the federal dollars already available on conservation methods. The Senate bills were introduced by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Sante Fe. The fate of these bills will be decided within the next two weeks. If they do not pass, Grant County residents will have few options left available to try to sway the ISC, a governor-appointed board.

“It’s important we have all options open to discuss the large amount of public dollars that would be spent on this,” Morales said. “We’re going to consider $200 to $300 million not funded by the federal government, so it’s important to look at this.”

Last week Cissy McAndrew, executive director of the Southwest New Mexico Chapter of the Green Chamber of Commerce, also joined the voices of local people who are trying to make themselves heard in Sante Fe to support conservation efforts and protect the Gila River from damming or diversion. McAndrew and Morales both spoke at a press conference on the Gila River.

“We really are trying to protect our future and our sense of place here,” McAndrew said. “These projects are literally going to change our world.”
McAndrew said she spoke at the press conference because she is a concerned citizen.

“This is like the Colorado River project, just on a smaller scale,” McAndrew said. “We know that didn’t work. We need to look at more long-term solutions.”
One issue both Morales and McAndrew addressed has come up frequently. Who is going to pay for a diversion project, now estimated by Bohannan Huston, the engineering firm the ISC contracted to project construction cost estimates, to cost more than $300 million. Through the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), passed in 2004, the state of New Mexico will receive an additional federal subsidy of $34 million to $62 million for diverting the Gila River. Taxpayers will likely be the ones left to take care of the rest, which could mean a serious increase in taxes.

“We know people aren’t going to want to pay that,” McAndrew said.
Morales agreed.
“Taxpayers could get hit, so there has to be a justification for it,” Morales said. “These things have to be discussed.”

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and the Gila Conservation Coalition also attended the press conference last Tuesday.

“I think Senator Wirth’s approach is fiscally responsible,” Executive Director of the Gila Conservation Coalition Allyson Siwik said of Senate Bills 89 and 90. “There’s a huge concern about the burden of a super expensive water diversion project on New Mexico taxpayers. We have a solution before us with nondiversion alternatives to get southwest New Mexico’s water needs met. We can also generate three times the amount of water with nondiversion projects.”

There are additional concerns, as well, besides money. Morales spoke about the ecological impact of a diversion project on the Gila river and Public Lands Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, Toner Mitchell, did as well.

“That money could be available for so many uses for water,” Mitchell said. “The Gila trout is a very important fish and it’s very threatened. It’s the budgetary egegriousness of it that is of concern. There are watershed projects that could benefit both humans and the Gila trout.”

In addition, according to the Sante Fe New Mexican, Wirth has expressed a concern that New Mexico has significant water infrastructure demands ahead and money needs to be spent toward that. Morales also spoke about the larger water issues of the entire state.

“There are so many water needs,” Morales said.

Both bills are currently going through committee process. If they pass through committee, they will soon reach the legislature’s floor.

“This has gotten a lot of attention,” Siwik said. “Given the drought, people are really watching what’s happening in New Mexico. This issue will show how New Mexico moves forward, especially in the face of climate change.”

Susan Dunlap can be reached at 575-538-5893 ext. 5803.