Brett Walton’s Circle of Blue update on the Interior Department’s upcoming Gila River diversion decision suggests we should expect a “yes” from Secretary Jewell tomorrow on a decision to proceed with a lot of inconclusive studies of the super-expensive project that will almost certainly never be built but that will be an intense environmental and water management distraction in New Mexico for years to come.
The decision simply represents a bureaucratic milestone – the approval of a “New Mexico unit” to the Central Arizona Project that could eventually be the institutional vehicle to divert water from the Gila River in southwest New Mexico. It’s a bureaucratic ratchet: “no” tomorrow would kill the diversion, but “yes” doesn’t ensure that it is built. And Walton’s Magic Eight Ball suggests that “signs point to yes”:
Statements from the Interior Department indicate that Jewell will approve the New Mexico unit and proceed with an environmental review that is required under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.
This could take
decades a really long time:
According to the project’s authorizing statue, a final decision would be made between 2019 and 2030.
The closest thing we have to serious benefit/cost analyses of this project, done by the federal government ( the recently released Value Planning – Final Report: New Mexico Unit, see also last year’s Appraisal Level Report on the AWSA Tier-2 Proposals and Other Diversion & Storage Configurations) suggests building a diversion and storage for water taken from the Gila would be staggeringly expensive and staggeringly not cost effective, with costs from $700 million to $1.05 billion and substantially less in benefits. Since New Mexico will have to pay most of the cost (Brett’s story gives a good rundown of the limited federal money available) and my impoverished state struggles to find money for far less expensive water projects with far clearer benefits (see this NM Legislative Finance committee report – pdf – for an overview of that problem), you can see where this is headed. However the rest of the policy and politics debates play out, New Mexico is never going to have the money to build this. For now this is a discussion in isolation – Gila project, yes or no? – but as we face decisions as a state, it will inevitably be stacked up against other water infrastructure spending, and it will not stack up well.
My prediction: We’ll have a wonderful, energetic, impassioned fight for years. Come 2030, we’ll still have a Gila Diversion Project, live on the books, with little chance in reality of being built. Lawyers and consultants will prosper. But a great deal of human water management capital that could have been more productively spent dealing with our water needs and environmental problems will have been squandered.
The Magic Eight Ball toy offered up 20 different possible answers to the weighty questions my friends and I would pose as kids in the 1960s. My favorite: “Reply hazy. Try again.”
We always did.