ALBUQUERQUE — A former Interstate Stream Commission member on Monday charged that the commission and its subcommittee studying possible Gila River projdects committed more than a dozen violations of the state Open Meetings Act.
Norman Gaume, a retired Santa Fe engineer, handed the commission a letter saying every action taken by the Gila River subcommittee is void due to the “egregious violations,” including what he called “secret” meetings without public notice and the commission’s failure to approve contracts worth more than $100,000.
Interstate Stream Commission Director Estevan Lopez, who has been nominated as commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, declined to comment on the allegations. The commission did not discuss the allegations with Gaume.
Gaume said he will decide in the next 15 days whether to take the commission to court over the allegations. He has hired the Santa Fe law firm of Egolf, Ferlic and Day.
Gaume is among a number of people vehemently opposed to construction of a water diversion and reservoir project in the Gila River Basin, which he said would cost nearly $1 billion and produce very little usable water.
New Mexico stands to gain millions of dollars and up to 14,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Gila River under the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act. But the Interstate Stream Commission must decide by the end of the year if it wants a diversion project or lose millions of dollars in federal funding.
The headwaters of the Gila and San Francisco rivers are in New Mexico, but flows end up in Arizona. New Mexico can only siphon its portion of water during high-flow events, of which there are few, according to Gaume and other scientists at Monday’s commission meeting in Albuquerque.
Many sportsmen, conservationists, biologists and Silver City officials oppose a river diversion on the Gila. They say watershed improvements, conservation, water reuse and groundwater development can supply the region. They also claim that diverting the water will mess with the basin’s complicated hydrology and ecosystem, which supports more than 332 bird species and several fish species found only in the Gila River Basin.
But watching water flow past his drought-plagued region into Arizona recently upset Anthony Gutierrez, chairman of the Gila San Francisco Water Commission. “I have heard about how capturing some of that water won’t work and is fatally flawed,” Gutierrez told the Interstate Stream Commission on Monday. “But if we can’t retain any of that water, we don’t see any benefit.”
The commission he chairs represents 18 local governments, water and ditch associations in southwestern New Mexico who want a river diversion and the federal funding. The money available from the federal government could be leveraged with investments and bonds, making it possible to pay for many of the proposed water projects without tapping state coffers.
Southwestern New Mexico towns, farmers, conservationists, sportsmen and the state have worked on proposals for more than a decade. The commission narrowed the list to 16 from 45 and was to choose preliminary projects for funding in August. The decision, however, was postponed until November.
The Interstate Stream Commission has until Dec. 31 to choose projects and divide funding under the Arizona settlement. Its decision will be sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Under the settlement, New Mexico was allotted $66 million for water conservation or reuse projects and $34 million to build a river diversion project. But the projected cost, based on Bureau of Reclamation numbers, is closer to $1 billion to build the diversion, pipes system and reservoirs, Gaume said.
Officials in some areas want to use their share of federal funding to beef up wells, build wastewater recycling systems and boost water conservation. Silver City officials don’t want a river diversion project to serve the community’s 19,000 water customers. Mayor Michael Morones said he doesn’t think his city’s preferred water reuse and conservation projects are the ones preferred by members of the Interstate Stream Commission or by some other Southern New Mexico towns.
“A certain body of population wants a big project to be done, including diversion,” said Morones, who was born and raised in Silver City near the Gila River. “I just don’t believe it is a practical approach. I don’t believe what they are looking to do will qualify. I don’t believe they will have the water they think they will.”
Morones said the town plans to seek alternate funding for water projects even if they aren’t funded by the commission under the Arizona Water Settlements Act.
Officials from places such as Deming and Grant County, where Gutierrez is a planner, want the water piped from the Gila and San Francisco rivers into reservoirs.
Interstate Stream Commission staff and Lopez have said in the past that a river diversion project needs to be part of the mix that the commission considers for funding.
River advocates are infuriated at the idea that the state’s last free-flowing river would be dammed.
Craig Roepke, the commission’s deputy director, has said in the past that the diversions aren’t dams but structures that can be raised to siphon water only during high-flow events. Roepke did not respond to requests for comments for this story.
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.