Rubel: New Mexico's Gamble On Gila River Diversion Was a Loser

Aug 1, 2019


Commentary: We’ve wasted so much time and money on the failed Gila River diversion proposal that we have no choice but to continue wasting more time and money on it.


That seemed to be the argument made to the Albuquerque Journal by Howard Hutchinson, a member of the special entity formed to oversee the project, who said he had been working on the river diversion proposal since 1973. “Predecessors and mentors of mine have also invested many years and lots of money in this issue,” he told the Journal. “It would be a tragedy for all that time to be wasted.”

In poker, that’s called being pot-committed with a losing hand. No matter how long we stay in the game or how much more money we throw into the pot, it’s still a losing hand.


The good news is that new Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made the wise decision to fold. She vetoed $1.7 million that had been requested by the Interstate Stream Commission for the project.

Bills passed by Congress in 1968 and 2004 established the limits and conditions by which New Mexico can divert water from the river. Both the money and the water diversion have strings attached. With the diversion, all of the water we take has to be replaced downstream.


New Mexico has the most junior water rights on the river, Norm Gaume, a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission and an opponent of the diversion project, explained in an interview I did for KTAL-LP community radio. That means all other users have to be satisfied first and all of the water we divert has to be paid for ahead of time.


And most years there isn’t enough water to divert, Gaume said. That’s why all of the previous efforts to dam the Gila have also failed.


Leaders of the diversion proposal once envisioned farmers in Catron, Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties swapping traditional harvests of cotton and alfalfa for more “thirsty” crops like lavender, hemp, potatoes, pecans and grapes, The Journal reported.


But, with no hope for meeting the federal deadline on the required impact statement, the diversion project stands to lose access to $55 million. And so, project leaders have dramatically scaled back their plans.


They have trimmed $83 million from the proposal, which they said would make it more “cost effective.” But those changes did nothing to generate support for the proposal.


Lujan Grisham made stopping the project one of the planks of her campaign platform on water policy, and she apointed new members to the Interstate Stream Commission who share that view. Both U.S. senators from New Mexico and all three House members also stand in opposition.


The state took a gamble in 2014. The entity responsible for the project had 10 years, starting in 2004, to decide on a water diversion plan, or take less money for water conservation projects. They went for the diversion plan, knowing that there was no consensus outside of their small group for that decision. Now, they have no support and are already blaming others for the collapse that lies ahead.


Much of the passion over this issue has been driven by the fact that the Gila is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico - a claim that diversion supporters dispute, and one I think misses the point.

The reason the Gila is still free-flowing is not because of a deep and abiding love for the river over the years.


There were three previous proposals to build a dam, and all failed because they weren’t feasible. That is still the case.


Walt Rubel can be reached at