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SANTA FE, N.M. -- Should the state's last free-flowing river be allowed to keep running free, or should it be managed as a new supply of water for parts of southwestern New Mexico?

New Mexico has rights to some of the Gila River and one of its tributaries under a 2004 settlement with Arizona. The deadline for deciding what to do with the water is at the end of the year.

If New Mexico doesn't use the water, it will keep flowing into Arizona and the state will forgo millions of dollars in federal funds available for construction of a diversion project.

Environmentalists and sportsmen contend any dams or diversions would harm the area's wildlife and limit opportunities for recreation. But farmers throughout the region say the Gila would offer a backup source of water as dry conditions persist.

Estevan Lopez, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, acknowledges that reaching any kind of consensus among the stakeholders has proven to be an elusive task. However, he thinks conserving the river and diverting it aren't mutually exclusive.

``There are ways of finding synergy that can benefit the environment,'' he said.

The decision about how to handle the Gila River will likely have a ripple effect on state water policy going forward. Two state senators have introduced legislation this session to address the dilemma.

Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, is calling for the Interstate Stream Commission to spend a chunk of the federal dollars available under the agreement to boost water supplies in the region by conserving water, reusing effluent, practicing conservation agriculture and restoring watersheds. Wirth said the projects can serve as a conservation road map for other water-strapped communities in the state.

``These are low-hanging fruit that every part of the state, municipalities and agriculture should look at,'' Wirth said.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, signed on as a co-sponsor last week. He said the river helps drive the local economy.

``If we divert and transfer a significant amount of Gila water to other parts of the state for urban development, the economic and ecologic health of my district would be jeopardized now and in the future,'' he said in a statement.

Farmers, environmentalists, and municipal, state and federal officials began meeting more than a decade ago, before the settlement was signed, to work out a plan. More than 200 meetings later, the Interstate Stream Commission settled on 15 potential projects in the Gila Basin.

The commission's staff and contractors are trying to finish studies on how the projects would impact the region's hydrology, economy, ecology and cultural resources.

The commission will propose a plan for the Gila in August to give the public time to comment. A final decision is expected in November.

Associated Press,

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