SANTA FE—Gov. Bill Richardson said Thursday he'll consider proposing a statutory protection for the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico to block the construction of dams or water diversion projects on what he calls the "state's last free-flowing river."

The Gila has been named as one of the nation's most endangered rivers by American Rivers, a conservation group.

The biggest threat to the river, according to the group, is the potential for a diversion project that would draw water out of the Gila, store it in an off-stream reservoir and transport it over the Continental Divide to provide municipal water supplies for growth and development in the Silver City area or elsewhere. A state water official says no diversion project has been proposed for the river, however.

The Gila is New Mexico's only "mainstem" river, such as the Rio Grande, San Juan and Pecos, without a major water development project such as a reservoir.

Richardson early in his administration pledged to oppose the construction of dams on the river. He reiterated that policy Thursday in announcing the Gila River's listing as the seventh most endangered river in the nation. Dam projects were proposed for the river in the 1970s and


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1980s.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Richardson said he will consider asking the Legislature to place in state law a prohibition on dam or water diversion projects on the Gila. He also said he would support having the Interstate Stream Commission adopt a resolution against such water development projects on the river.

"I just think it needs to be protected," Richardson said.

A statutory provision to protect the Gila improves the chances that Richardson's no-dams policy on the river would continue after he left office. A change in state law requires approval by the Legislature and the governor.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said a statutory protection for the Gila "is something we ought to look at." But she acknowledged it could difficult to push through the Legislature and said "it will be tricky to draft."

In remarks to a group of conservation and environmental activists, Richardson described the Gila as "one of New Mexico's treasures."

"Politicians will say to you, 'We can balance the environment and energy growth or we can balance the environment and somehow also create jobs.' But you know what, sometimes you can't do it. Sometimes you've got to just say, OK, this is a river. It's going to be protected. We're not going to have these developments here. It's not going to happen. Leave it alone," Richardson said.

Fueling the idea of a Gila River diversion is $66 million to potentially $128 million in federal money available to New Mexico for water development under a 2004 settlement of water rights in Arizona. The settlement gives New Mexico the option of taking water from the Gila in exchange for giving up an entitlement to some water from the Central Arizona Project.

"Contrary to the governor's Gila River policy, the Interstate Stream Commission is pushing for a diversion at any place and almost at any cost. In other words, the Gila River endangerment is caused by the Interstate Stream Commission trying to push a diversion that there is no demonstrated local need for," said Todd Schulke of Silver City, senior policy adviser for the Center for Biological Diversity.

However, the director of the Interstate Stream Commission, Estevan Lopez, said there was no proposal by the group for a diversion or other water development project on the Gila. There is a planning process under way involving local residents, he said, that will determine what if any water development is done in the area.

"I want to emphasize that what that money is used for and whether that water is utilized and how it will be utilized will all be the product of that planning process," Lopez said in a telephone interview. "It is completely false to say that the ISC has a specific project in mind."

Lopez also said, "Obviously we agree with the governor that this river merits protection and its ecology merits protection."

The commission is responsible for water planning and protection in New Mexico. The state engineer serves on the commission along with eight members appointed by the governor.

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On the Net:

American Rivers: http://www.AmericanRivers.com

Gila Conservation Coalition: http://www.gilaconservation.org