New Mexico legislators want to keep their grip on the tap controlling millions of dollars for a controversial project to divert water from the Gila River.
The Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday backed a bill that would curb a state commission’s power over federal funding for the diversion.
Critics for years have said the proposed diversion would be ecologically harmful and financially reckless.
And the question of who controls the funding does not just represent a tussle for power between two branches of government. It could decide whether the project proceeds at all.
The Interstate Stream Commission, which has argued it should control the money, says the legislation could cause New Mexico to lose out on federal funds altogether.
“If SB 340 became law, we would open ourselves up to several costly lawsuits and, more importantly, it would mean our state would miss critical federal deadlines which could result in losing up to $62 million in federal funding that would have been spent in the southwest region of New Mexico,” said Melissa Dosher, a spokeswoman for the commission.
The state has been working for years to tap into about $100 million in federal money available under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act that was intended to develop more sustainable water supplies in four southwestern New Mexico counties.
Of that total, about $66 million was available for any type of water project, such a river diversion or a regional water system. Another $34 million was available for New Mexico to divert water — up to 14,000 acre-feet a year — from the Gila River, which runs through that part of the state into Arizona. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.
With farmers and communities such as Deming seeing advantages in taking more water from the river, the Interstate Stream Commission has pushed to build the diversion.
But other communities, such as Silver City, have proposed alternatives such as a regional water system and a water restoration project.
Cost has been a central point of contention. Opponents say the diversion would be a poor use of the cash and would require not just federal funds but state money, too.
Senate Bill 340 would require funding for the diversion go through the Legislature’s budget process, and for the Interstate Stream Commission to explain the costs.
Though the measure has bipartisan support — it is sponsored by Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque — some Republican senators have expressed concern that it would cause New Mexico to miss out on federal funds as well as water that now flows west.
The bill goes next to the Senate Finance Committee.