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By Chris McKee, KRQE News
November 10, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It’s New Mexico’s last untapped, wild river, but the state is considering diverting water out of the Gila and it’s not settling well with everyone.

The state’s Interstate Stream Commission has to decide by the end of the year if it will divert part of the Gila in order to access Federal funding. While some irrigators believe it’s needed for farms and southern municipalities, environmentalists say it would cost taxpayers millions and do lots of damage to the river.

“No to the billion dollar boondoggle!” said a crowd of protesters who were rallying against the Gila River diversion on Monday.

More than 60 protesters chanted outside of the New Mexico Environment Department offices in Northeast Albuquerque on Monday, as the Interstate Stream Commission met inside to discuss the possible Gila project.

“ISC listen to me, keep the Gila wild and free!” chanted the crowd.

Many protesters do not want the state to divert water from the Gila. The state is considering the proposal though due to a number of project requests for more water.

“The southwest region, the ground water supply has been declining roughly 30,000 acre feet annually,” said Scott Verhines, a New Mexico State Engineer.

Verhines is one of the state’s top officials in charge of water management. He also serves as the secretary for the state’s Interstate Stream Commission, which will ultimate decide on the diversion project.

The commission has until the end of 2014 to decided whether or not it will go for up to $128-million of federal money for diversion related projects on the Gila.

The commission is now weighing a list of 15 to 16 projects in the area that could benefit from a diversion project, like the Grant County Reservoir.

“These proposals were all generated by the local community, these are not proposals that the commission has said ‘you ought to go do these things,’” said Verhines.

To get water to those projects, the state is considering diverting around 12,000 acre feet of water a year from the Gila River. To do it, the project could potentially add pipeline, storage tanks and new reservoirs off of the Gila.

In a presentation Monday, one engineering firm hired by the state believes it could cost more than $700 million to build, plus around $3 million a year to operate. Protesters think that’s a waste of money.

“We don’t have a billion dollars to throw around, we’ve got children’s education to throw around, we’re got conservation projects that are perfectly valid,” said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club.

Protesters are also worried about the impact on wildlife.

“It’s harmful to the Gila river’s ecology and puts in jeopardy the survival of six threatened and endangered species,” said Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.

State officials said Monday, they’re listening.

“I’d like to think that all the other commissioners are in the same place, the idea is we want to be an informed commission,” said Verhines.

Protesters were also upset Monday that the commission didn’t take any public comment. The board says they’re saving that for a Friday meeting in Silver City. The commission could vote on November 24th about whether or not they’ll move forward with the Gila River diversion.

However, that vote hinges on a lawsuit expected to be heard on Wednesday. A former director of the commission is suing, claiming the Interstate Stream Commission has been violating open meetings laws on the Gila project for years.