By KAY MATTHEWS
On Monday, November 10 at 12:15 pm there will be a rally and press conference in front of the Interstate Stream Commission, 5550 San Antonio Dr. NE, in Albuquerque, to protest the ISC’s meeting that same day. The commission is charged with making a decision whether to move forward with a billion dollar diversion project under the Arizona Water Settlements Act on the Gila River, in southwestern New Mexico, the last major undammed river in the state. A discussion of the Gila is on the meeting’s agenda for 10:20 am but the ISC has denied requests to hear public comments on the issue.
Under the terms of the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico was allotted 14,000 acre feet per year (afy) of Gila River water in exchange for Central Arizona Project water for the Gila Tribe in Arizona. New Mexico is entitled to $6.6 million a year for 10 years—hence the deadline at the end of this year—for non-diversion water projects. If the ISC goes ahead with a diversion project the federal government will grant additional funds up to $62 million.
Opponents of the proposed diversion claim the commission has never provided sufficient evidence to prove the diversion is fundamentally feasible or that it would produce enough water to justify the cost. The project would store water in reservoirs and pump it to southwestern municipalities, although it’s unclear who will actually get the water and how much it will cost. The largest irrigable landowner in the Cliff-Gila Valley happens to be the giant gold and copper mining corporation Freeport McMoRan, a likely candidate for the diverted water. Opponents also claim that the ISC has vastly under estimated the price tag of the diversion, which they say would cost more than $1 billion.
One of the most vocal critics of the ISC’s performance in evaluating the diversion is former ISC director Norm Gaume, who served from 1997 to 2002. He claims the ISC has been misled by staff over the potential cost of the project and its feasibility. In testimony and in a report presented to the ISC at its monthly meeting in Tucumcari on April 30, Gaume told commissioners that the Gila River diversion proposal currently under consideration “would produce little or no water but with major waste of money, time and effort.” (See protectthegila.org for more of Gaume’s critique of the diversion.)
Not only does he question the fundamental foundation of the project, he has also sued the commission over violations of the Open Meetings Act in a petition for a temporary restraining order and injunction. The suit claims that the commission’s Gila subcommittee has met regularly since 2010 without issuing public notice or opening the meetings to citizens.
A State District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the ISC from any taking any action on the Gila diversion until an October 30th hearing when both sides presented their cases. The judge kept the restraining order in place but allowed the ISC to schedule its regular meeting for Monday, November 10. Another hearing regarding the restraining order will be held on November 12.
The rally was organized because the ISC will not allow any public comment or input at the Monday meeting. According to folks at the Gila Conservation Coalition, based in Silver City, this has been ISC’s pattern in its many meetings over the years regarding this issue. Because Monday’s meeting is in Albuquerque, opportunity for the public to weigh in on the diversion is optimal. At a subsequent meeting, scheduled for Friday, November 14 in Silver City, the full commission will hear testimony from both proponents of the diversion and those who favor non-diversion water projects, and the ISC staff will make its recommendation to the commission in favor of or against the diversion.