By Sarah Cottrell Propst, Board Member, Conservation Voters New Mexico | Guest Column | The Albuquerque Journal

In 2004, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act to settle long-standing Native American water rights claims in Arizona. The act also gave New Mexico the choice to use non-reimbursable federal funding to develop Gila River water or instead implement “water utilization alternatives” to meet the future water needs of southwestern New Mexico.

This choice has been the subject of much debate and analysis over the past decade.

Rightly so, because the decision to construct a $350 million plus Gila River diversion has great potential to saddle taxpayers and water users with a debt burden that could raise taxes, tap fees and water rates. A water development project could also irreparably harm the Gila River, the last wild river in the state and an anchor for a growing tourism and outdoor recreation economy in southwestern New Mexico.

Recently, Norm Gaume, a former Interstate Stream Commission director, weighed in on the issue. His analysis of the latest Gila River diversion proposal reveals a number of fatal flaws that will cause the project to fail, including a lack of planning for high sediment loads, significant losses to evaporation and reservoir leakage, and the high cost of diversion and pipeline construction.

Initial Arizona Water Settlements Act planning efforts led by the ISC focused solely on a Gila River diversion project. During the 2007 legislative session Gov. Bill Richardson recognized that nearly $1 million in state funding was being directed to “Gila Basin water development” without an examination of water use alternatives and without stakeholder participation.

Because of this unbalanced approach to addressing the region’s future water needs, the governor vetoed the funding, restructured the planning process to include all stakeholders and charged the ISC with examining a full range of alternatives.

Furthering our understanding of the fiscal implications of the choice before New Mexico, this multistakeholder planning process resulted in local communities proposing 16 projects, including 13 conservation alternatives that can immediately meet the long-term water needs of municipalities, ranchers and irrigators for less than a third of the cost of a Gila River diversion project.

These cost-effective proposals include municipal and agricultural conservation, effluent reuse, watershed restoration and sustainable groundwater management that can build resiliency in our water supply systems critical to adapting to the effects of climate change.

Because the Gila River Indian Community has the senior water rights to this Gila River water, New Mexico is on the hook to pay the delivery cost to replace every acre-foot of water we use – $2 million annually and rising. Choosing to pursue non-diversion conservation measures relieves New Mexico from paying Arizona every year to use Gila River water, as well as from the heavy financial burden of constructing an expensive water project that the act’s funding is insufficient to cover.

Gov. Susana Martinez and her ISC are set to make this fateful decision in November. The Arizona Water Settlements Act provides the state with an opportunity to move New Mexico into the future and implement innovative, efficient and cost-effective water supply alternatives that respect the ecological and economic importance of the Gila River.

Will New Mexico lead the way forward or continue the West’s legacy of high cost and destructive mega-water projects?

Sarah Cottrell Propst is a former policy adviser to Gov. Bill Richardson.