With an impending deadline at year’s end and a federal allocation of at least $34 million for Gila River water projects at stake, a state district judge on Thursday ordered a fast-track process for determining whether a New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission subcommittee violated the state Open Meetings Act during deliberations on the projects.
A week ago, state District Judge Raymond Ortiz of Santa Fe issued a temporary restraining order preventing the commission from taking any action related to the Gila River. That order was based on allegations by a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission who claims the body made a number of decisions without posting a meeting agenda or announcing any decisions that were made.
A hearing on the restraining order is set for Nov. 12. In the meantime, the commission and Norman Gaume, the former director, will have the ability to take depositions and seek documents.
Gaume, a retired engineer in Santa Fe, is among a number of people vehemently opposed to construction of a water diversion and reservoir project in the Gila River Basin. He researched documents and minutes to lay the foundation for his assertion that a “Gila committee” was more involved in developing possible alternatives than just serving in an advisory capacity.
During the hearing, Ortiz accepted a revised version of the original restraining order that allows the commission to continue ongoing operations. But the order states that “the defendants be restrained from taking any action based in whole or part on decisions, actions or selections that were themselves in violation of the act.”
Commission attorney Keitha Leonard said the agency would challenge whether the Open Meetings Act was violated at all.
“There is no evidence that would support the plaintiffs’ allegations that the commission’s Gila committee met in secret,” she said, “or that it was supposed to be a publicly noticed meeting every time that the committee met, and that the Gila committee made these ‘subsidiary decisions’ that then the commission relied on.”
She also emphasized that a Dec. 31 deadline for tapping federal funds for a river diversion has been known for a decade and that there is no time to finish the work.
Gaume’s lawyer, Brian Egolf, reminded those in the courtroom that the commission “also has known for 10 years, and if there have been violations of the Open Meetings Act, the consequences are the result of the [commission’s] own conduct. This is nothing that the plaintiff has caused.”
Anthony Gutierrez, a Grant County planner who chairs the Gila-San Francisco Commission, said a four-county region has at least four projects that depend on construction of one of more river diversions.
The Arizona Water Settlements Act was passed 10 years ago to fulfill an agreement that allowed New Mexico to retain specified amounts of water in exchange for the Gila Tribe in Arizona receiving water from the Central Arizona Project.
Under the terms of the law, New Mexico was entitled to $66 million for various projects that do not include a substantial diversion project. But if New Mexico chose to build a diversion, the federal government would grant additional funds up to $62 million. The funds will be provided only if the decision is made by Dec. 31, 2014.
Estimates of construction of a diversion have reached $1 billion.