New Mexico legislature considers two bills that would designate how AWSA funds are to be spent

Two bills have surfaced in the New Mexico legislature attempting to apportion and regulate millions of dollars in federal funds designated for water projects. These funds come from the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) of 2004, which gave New Mexico rights to 14,000 acre-feet of water per year, $66M of federal money for water supply projects, and an additional $34M-$62M in funding for a project to divert the Gila River.

Because of the limitations on the types of bills that can be introduced in the short 30-day legislative session, bills must be considered germane before they can be considered.  The Senate Committees’ Committee (SCC) has determined that SB 89 is germane—meaning it falls within the constitutionally-defined scope for the short legislative session—and it is now under consideration by the Senate Conservation Committee.  The SCC has not yet issued a report on whether SB 90 meets the requirements.

Sponsored by Senator Peter Wirth (D- Santa Fe), SB 90 would require beneficiaries of AWSA money to secure and guarantee funding before submitting water project proposals, and SB 89 would allocate $82M for water conservation, efficiency, and reuse projects. The two bills are an attempt to exert legislative influence over the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), a 9-member governor-appointed body that holds authority over the Gila River.

Sen. Wirth sees SB 90 as a way to protect taxpayers.

“Before the ISC makes a decision that binds us to a dam, let’s make darn sure where the rest of the money is coming from, so taxpayers are not on the hook,” he said.

The senator argued that he is not trying to take diversion of the table; he is merely promoting full exploration of alternative water supply solutions.

“[SB 89] is simply saying let’s use $82 million as a pilot for the rest of the state to show what can happen through conservation,” said the state senator.

Sen. Wirth contends that opting for the expensive and potentially damaging river diversion project over cheaper community projects is a mistake. “These are low-hanging fruit that every part of the state, municipalities and agriculture should look at,” Wirth said.

In addition to balance-sheet concerns, anti-diversion pressure has come from environmental groups and hunting enthusiasts worried about the ecological impact of a diversion project. As New Mexico’s last free-flowing river, the Gila River and its watershed, located in the nation’s first protected Wilderness Area, hold special value.

A letter signed by 300 business leaders from around the state echoes these environmental concerns. It petitioned Governor Martinez to reject water project proposals that would threaten tourism and recreation opportunities along the Gila River, for which diversion is proposed. They are countered by farmers, who support diversion of the Gila in order to bolster their water supplies, which have become increasingly under threat.

Director of the ISC Estevan Lopez asserts that it is possible to divert the river without causing environmental harm. “There are ways of finding synergy that can benefit the environment,” he said.

The stakes of the decision are high.

If the ISC does not start a Gila River diversion project this year, it will lose the apportioned federal funds, which now total nearly $100 million after ten years of inflation. However, projected costs for such a project trend toward $300 million, which would leave taxpayers to foot the $200 million difference.

The ISC will release a plan for the Gila River by August to allow time for public input. The commission will submit its final decision in November.

Written by Stratecon staff