Commentary: Community leaders and nonprofit organizations are applauding New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham for signing House Bill 200 into law today. The legislation,which was co-sponsored by Reps. Matthew McQueen and Nathan Small and Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart and Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, ends the proposed Gila diversion project and fast-tracks the spending of the remaining approximately $80 million in the NM Unit Fund for priority water projects, creating long-term water security and jobs in southwest New Mexico (Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna Counties).
“House Bill 200 is a fiscal responsibility bill. It will create jobs, stimulate the economy, and improve lives,” said Rep. Matthew McQueen. “I am grateful to the Governor for her support in ending wasteful government spending and instead investing in the future of southwest New Mexico.”
“I was proud to co-sponsor the bill to protect the Gila River. We are finally focusing the $80 million from the federal government on needed water projects all over the 4 county region,” said Senate Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart. “The river is one of New Mexico’s most spectacular wild places, which provides a critical natural resource for wildlife and people.”
“I would like to thank Governor Lujan Grisham for signing House Bill 200 into law today. This measure will provide good jobs and much-needed economic stimulus to the southwest region of New Mexico while supporting important water infrastructure and shovel-ready projects for our local communities,” said Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill. “I’d also like to thank the governor for her recognition that regional representation on the Water Trust Board will be crucial as the $80 million investment towards irrigation projects, municipal water systems and water supply protection programs is allocated.”
HB 200 designates the Water Trust Board (WTB) to advise the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) on how to spend the remaining $80 million in the NM Unit Fund, replacing the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (NM CAP) Entity. The WTB has a diverse 16-member board that represents a cross section of water users from around New Mexico and state agencies responsible for various aspects of water planning and management. Part of its charge is “the fair distribution and allocation of New Mexico’s scarce water resources for beneficial purposes of use within the state.” The WTB has the experience, capacity, and expertise to professionally evaluate local water proposals to assist the ISC’s ability to get needed funding to priority projects in communities in a timely and fair way.
Importantly, the legislation also prohibits the state from using any money from the NM Unit Fund to evaluate, plan or construct a Gila River diversion. In June 2020, the ISC voted to effectively end efforts to pursue a major diversion project on New Mexico’s last free-flowing river, the Gila River, after thousands of New Mexicans provided public input calling for an end to the effort. That process wasted 15 years and more than $15 million pursuing an infeasible and unaffordable Gila River Diversion Project.
Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales all opposed the diversion effort. Their leadership was instrumental in the ISC’s decision to ultimately defund the project.
HB200 passed the Senate by a tally of 26-15 on March 15 thanks to the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, who has worked on this issue since 2014. It passed the full House of Representatives on February 25 with the guidance and leadership of Speaker Brian Egolf, who should be credited with helping develop the legislation.
The bill’s sponsors and leadership in both the House of Representatives and the Senate should be commended for their cumulative decades of effort to pass the legislation.
Quotes from supporters:
Alicia Edwards, Grant County Commissioner for District 3, said:
“The CAP Entity has wasted many years and millions of dollars on a wild goose chase that has led to nothing of value for our communities. Why would we trust them to do any different in the future? It’s time to reconsider the process used in deciding how to spend the remaining $80 million in the NM Unit Fund and do everything we can to ensure it’s spent on projects that will conserve water and deliver jobs to our people.”
Larry McDaniel, Grant County sportsman, said:
“The Gila River is New Mexico’s last free-flowing river and one of our most precious resources. Building an expensive diversion will do nothing to protect this resource, but instead will threaten the survival of diverse wildlife that call this region home. Moving away from this pointless proposal will allow southwest New Mexico’s families to continue enjoying the endless opportunities to hunt, fish, camp, hike, and explore this one-of-a-kind place.”
Joe Zupan, Executive Director of Amigos Bravos, said:
“Amigos Bravos supports passage of HB200, which we believe will advance the cause of protecting New Mexico’s iconic Gila watershed and will deploy needed resources to appropriate water projects in southwest New Mexico.”
Judy Calman, New Mexico Policy Director for The Audubon Society, said:
“The Gila Region is extremely important to birds like the federally listed Western Yellow Billed Cuckoo, whose population is in steep decline and which is dependent on riparian areas. HB 200 will help ensure that scarce water stays in the river and that decisions about it are made wisely and by the best available science.”
Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said:
“Ding, dong, the diversion is finally dead. Now we can get on with the job of protecting the Gila River forever and providing water security for communities in southwestern New Mexico.”
Lilian Castillo, Deputy Director for Climate Advocates Voces Unidas (CAVU), said:
“We celebrate the passage of HB 200 because it finally removes the Gila River from the crosshairs of a billion-dollar boondoggle diversion project for the first time in more than a decade. The Gila River is a mainstay for the region's recreation economy and a biological gem whose riparian forests boast one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in the country. Now, the state can move toward financially viable and environmentally responsible solutions to meet the water supply needs of southwest New Mexico.”
Greg Peters, Public Lands & Wildlife Advocate for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said:
“With the failed Gila diversion now defunded, it is time to quickly and equitably fund critical, locally driven projects in southwest New Mexico. HB 200, which was signed into law today, is the first step to ensuring a self-reliant water future without diverting one of the last free-flowing rivers in the southwest. This bill will provide real and immediate help by creating jobs in rural communities, protecting and restoring our limited water supply, getting more New Mexicans outdoors, and stopping the waste of resources. We are grateful for Governor Lujan Grisham signing this critical bill into law, and for the leadership of HB200's sponsors and the support from House and Senate members who voted to pass this bill.”
Allyson Siwik, Executive Director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, said:
“We applaud Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham for signing HB200 into law today. This legislation is an essential step in bringing good governance to NM Unit Fund spending. Communities have been waiting for more than a decade to access this funding for critical water supply projects. It’s time to stop the waste of millions of dollars on a failed Gila diversion project and move forward with rapid and efficient disbursement of funding to priority water projects in southwest New Mexico.”
Kent Salazar, Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO), said:
“As New Mexico deals with an increasingly dry climate, it is irresponsible to continue pouring millions of dollars into any diversion of the Gila River. The Water Trust Board is better positioned to advise the state on how to spend NM Unit Funding on projects that will ensure clean water for our communities in the decades to come.”
Mark Allison, Executive Director of New Mexico Wild, said:
“House Bill 200 is necessary for good governance and smart management, and will move New Mexico toward projects that actually conserve one of our most sacred resources – our water. New Mexicans deserve to have confidence that the project evaluation for the expenditure of millions of dollars will be done with professionalism, competence, and expertise. We can now avoid the obvious conflicts of interest that would have occurred without this bill. Proponents of diverting the Gila had their shot and failed. Enough is enough and it is past time to move on. Governor Lujan Grisham has followed through on a campaign promise to end this terrible diversion proposal for good, and she should be commended for staying true to her word.”
Ray Trejo, Southern New Mexico Outreach Coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said:
“With the passage of HB200, local and underserved neighborhoods and communities will finally be funded adequately and no longer held hostage by the NMCAP Entity.”
Ángel Peña, Executive Director of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, said:
“HB200 represents an effective way to prioritize funding for our critical water needs. For far too long, a process has been in place that has done nothing but waste millions of dollars on a diversion project that would benefit only a privileged handful. HB200 is a solution and a way forward that will result in equitable distribution of NM Unit Funds to the benefit of southwest New Mexico communities.”
Miya King-Flaherty, Our Wild New Mexico Organizer for Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, said:
“Passage of HB200 is a big win for communities in southwest New Mexico. This bill is about turning a new leaf. For too long, the NMCAP Entity has ignored much-needed water development projects in pursuit of diverting the Gila. We’re grateful to the bill sponsors for their action to ensure water sustainability and resilient communities in the region.”
Jeff Arterburn, President of the Gila-Rio Grande Chapter, Trout Unlimited, said:
“The Gila-Rio Grande Chapter of Trout Unlimited celebrates the passage of House Bill 200. Preserving a free-flowing Gila River is incredibly important to our members, and we are confident the Water Trust Board will do an excellent job advising the ISC on water projects that benefit southwestern New Mexico communities.”
Donna Stevens, Executive Director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, said:
“The Upper Gila Watershed Alliance’s members, many of whom live in the Gila Valley, are so pleased to hear the good news about HB200. We’ve been waiting a long time for the $80 million in the NM Unit Fund to be spent on projects that benefit everyone, not just a few people.”