WASHINGTON D.C. ― U.S. Sen. Tom Udall raised concerns Wednesday about a potential Gila River diversion project and pushed for continued funding for several water projects important to New Mexico communities at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
Udall has previously expressed skepticism over the high cost of a Gila River diversion project. He asked Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan R. López for an update and assurances that any proposed project would get a thorough economic and environmental review.
“The Gila River is a crown jewel of the Southwest and one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in the United States,” Udall said. “The river provides amazing opportunities for recreation, wildlife habitat protection, and has unique historic value. And of course we are also very sympathetic to the water needs of nearby communities, and the agricultural needs. I understand why any proposal that could mean more water resources is a discussion worth having — but from everything I’ve seen, this project simply doesn’t add up.”
“My understanding is that a diversion has the potential for about 14,000 acre feet of water, but with significant technical challenges, and only in a wet year that won’t happen very often,” he continued. “With construction costs estimated near a billion dollars, it would need NEPA approval for disturbing a relatively untouched river system. In short, this doesn’t seem like a viable or wise project.”
Udall asked López for details on the Bureau of Reclamation’s review process, including whether there will be an objective cost estimate. López told Udall that the agency plans to develop a full range of alternatives to evaluate during its review, including the project’s impact on fish and wildlife, recreation, cultural resources and cost. “We are committed to a robust evaluation of this,” López said. “As you say, the Gila is truly a jewel in the Southwest and it’s something that needs to be protected.”
Udall added that cost estimates for the Gila project range from $500 million to $1 billion, and any additional federal funds beyond what was already provided in the Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA) are unlikely to be supported by any future White House budget office. The 2004 AWSA provided $66 million for New Mexico to use on local water projects, and up to $128 million if the state pursues a diversion project.
Udall also thanked the Army Corps of Engineers for funding several projects important to New Mexico. These include several priorities that recently received funding through the Corps’ discretionary fund for flood control, which Udall successfully pushed to include in December’s omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016.
“We’ve had some good success funding flood control projects in Alamogordo, Socorro, the Southwest Valley and others. And I’m very relieved that we’ve continued the New Mexico acequias program,” Udall said. “For 2016, the Corps has funded the Rio Grande Environmental Management Program for the first time. It will be important to continue that effort which will link together stakeholders and watershed information to encourage collaboration on water challenges and minimize the potential for counterproductive conflicts. And finally, I’m glad we’re making progress on reimbursements under the environmental management accounts — specifically, for Rio Rancho in 2016. … The Corps signed agreements years ago with a variety of New Mexico communities to fund water projects, and we need to close these accounts out.”
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy committed to continuing to work with stakeholders in New Mexico to advance these projects in a fiscally responsible way.