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Water experts clash on what’s possible, probable on Gila River

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By Sherry Robinson

In the water wars, the latest battleground is the Gila River. Recently, the Interstate Stream Commission voted to take the first step in acquiring more water through a federal settlement. The controversial decision followed a 10-year public discussion in which the stakeholders grew too polarized to agree on any of a dozen options.
For the record, I can see both sides of this intensely divisive question. Because precedent and money are on the line, not to mention the credibility of the ISC, it’s worth a harder look.
Ostensibly, it’s water users vs. environmentalists, but it’s also about how diverse residents in the state’s four southwestern counties of Luna, Grant, Hidalgo and Catron see their future. And it’s something of a clash of water titans.
Through a 2004 settlement, the four counties have the opportunity to obtain an additional 14,000 acre-feet of water a year, a 47 percent increase. It’s enough to supply 24,000 to 40,000 homes annually, provide irrigation water for farmers and keep water in the river for endangered species, according to State Engineer Scott Verhines.
What community in New Mexico wouldn’t jump at the chance?
The federal settlement act provides $66 million for water projects or up to $128 million for storage. Cost estimates, however, are upwards of $575 million.


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