The Interstate Stream Commission: Acting in Whose Best Interest?

Editorial By KAY MATTHEWS

As I post this editorial on La Jicarita the Interstate Stream Commission board is preparing to make a final decision on whether funding from the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) will be spent to build a diversion project on the Gila River, the last free-flowing major river in New Mexico, or to fund other alternative water projects. At its previous meeting, the ISC staff recommended to the commission that 90 percent of the available funding be used for the diversion while 10 percent, or $7.85 million, be allocated for non-diversion alternatives. A restraining order, filed by former ISC director Norm Gaume, that prevented the commission from making its final decision regarding the diversion, was lifted on November 20 (his lawsuit will be heard in April of 2015). Gaume contends that the commission violated the Open Meetings Act during its hearings on the Gila River.

Opponents of the diversion project will hold a press conference today at 1:30 pm outside the meeting at the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Government Center, Vincent Griego Chambers, 1 Civic Center Plaza, Albuquerque.

In February of 2003 La Jicarita co-founder Mark Schiller and I interviewed Estevan López, who had just been appointed director of the Interstate Stream Commission (and now appears headed to the Bureau of Reclamation, as its boss), which governs New Mexico’s interstate stream contracts and is the agency that oversees development and implementation of the state’s regional water plans. This is part of what Lopez said in that interview:

“Let’s have a discussion about growth, then. Is that something we ought to be trying to control? Frame it in terms of the available resources. I think there is a great deal that can be done in terms of efficiencies in urban environments as well. Perhaps there are ways we can access some untapped resources, like brackish water that’s deep beneath the surface, treating that to drinking water quality. But we still need to have the discussion about growth, whether it’s wise for us to continue with unlimited growth. A lot of people say that you have to have growth to have a viable economy, but I don’t know if that’s a valid assumption. People need to weigh in on these issues. But even assuming we have those debates, and make the decision that we shouldn’t grow, we still have a huge amount of work to do in water planning to overcome the momentum of our current growth.”

As I’ve reported over the years in La Jicarita, we’ve tried to have a discussion about “growth” and “efficiency in urban environments” and “water planning to overcome the momentum of our current growth” in the context of regional water planning, but either Lopez didn’t represent ISC policy or he was just mouthing platitudes. The ISC was complicit in the highjacking of several regional water plans and now is preparing to implement the ill-conceived Gila River diversion dam that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Whenever there’s been a choice of less costly, conservation based water projects or big projects to move lots of water around, the ISC is usually on the side of the latter. It’s thinking very similar to the that of the United States Forest Service over many decades: if we don’t spend the big bucks on timbering, even beyond a sustainable yield, we won’t get the big federal bucks. If the ISC doesn’t approve the big diversion and water delivery projects, they don’t get the bucks from the legislature. They’re certainly not getting it for planning.

 Gila River Diversion Project

The groups fighting this plan—Gila Conservation Coalition, Sierra Club, Audubon Society—and the many individuals, including former ISC director Norm Gaume, have made substantive arguments against it:

  • There is ample evidence, which the ISC has ignored, that the amount of water will be less than half the 14,000 acre foot per yield that is allocated in the settlement. Norm Gaume submitted a written report to the ISC at its April 30, 2014 meeting in Tucumcari in which he challenged the model the agency used to quantify the amount of water available from the diversion. The ISC denied his request for the model spreadsheet used to calculate water availability, but after a successful claim under the Inspection of Public Records Act, Gaume was able to calculate that the model results show an annual quantity of available diversion water at 8,000 afy, not 14,000 afy. In testimony before the state legislature in October of 2014 Gaume claimed the “fatally flawed”  engineering report on the proposed diversion was reviewed by a consultant hired by the ISC in March of 2014 that found “The expected [reservoir] seepage, when combined with evaporation loses, could easily equal or succeed the planned minimum annual diversion of 10,000 afy, which would result in no available usable water from the project.”
  • Taxpayers will have to supplement the $66 million funding provided under the AWSA to meet the projected diversion cost of over a billion dollars. In his report Gaume also shows evidence that rates for project beneficiaries would more than double and that operational and energy costs (water will have to be pumped across the Continental Divide) have not been factored into the process.
  • The proposed diversion would also hugely impact the headwaters of the Gila River, habitat for federally listed endangered birds, fish, and snakes. Proposed reservoirs would reduce small floods and high-flow pulses that are important for the plant and animal life in this riparian corridor.

Regional Water Plans

 All of us who’ve been involved in the regional water planning process as non-governmental stakeholders trying to address critical water issues within both the planning and implementation processes have bumped up against the ISC. A member of the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly told me, when push comes to shove, state agencies still stick to “top down” as opposed to “bottom up” planning when it comes to decision making.

When the Taos Regional Water Plan was presented to the ISC for approval in 2007 the commission voted to delay approval until the “parties could reach consensus.” The “parties” they referred to were the stakeholders, who represented unincorporated communities, environmental organizations, acequias, mutual domestics, and other water users who met for over two years, as volunteers, to draft the plan, and who came to public meetings across the region to help devise critical strategies, which included a priority of keeping water in its area of origin. The “consensus” that was trying to be reached was the creation of a public welfare oversight committee to look at all water transfers both within and from the region, and based on the public welfare criteria that had been developed (cultural protection, agrarian character, watershed health, and long-term economic development), make an informed recommendation to the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) as to whether the transfer was in the public interest.

Did we come to consensus? Hell no. With the backing of the ISC the “decision makers,” Taos region municipalities and water district officials, along with Abeyta Water Rights adjudication parties who had objected to the public welfare component of the regional water plan, informed the stakeholders that their job was done and were no longer part of the process. It was time for the decision makers to draft a final plan and that would not include a public welfare statement with a public welfare committee to review water transfers.

Several years later Taos County stepped up to the plate and approved an ordinance that established such a committee, which makes recommendations to the county commissioners, instead of the State Engineer, whether a transfer is in the best interest of the citizens of Taos County. I’ve written extensively about that ordinance, and about the various water transfers the committee has reviewed (I served as chair of the committee for three years). Again, controversy developed when the committee challenged several transfers made under the auspices of the Abeyta settlement, and as a result, I ended up resigning.

Since then the committee has been reduced from nine to five members and is posed to change the bylaws at the December 15 meeting, which I plan on attending to see what’s up. It seems the county wants to make the committee a more “in-house” function of the Planning Department and diminish its role as an informational conduit to the public (the Public Welfare Ordinance states that one of the purposes of the committee is “To inform residents of the County about proposed appropriations and changes in point of diversion, place of use or purpose of use of water from and within Taos County”).

The Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly, which drafted its regional water plan in 2004, has seen considerable strife and controversy over the years as plan implementation has slowed to a crawl and numerous changes to the water situation have occurred. While some positive steps have been taken to conserve water, initiate the San Juan/Chama drinking water diversion plan (some folks would challenge that as a success), and restore the Rio Grande bosque, this plan has experienced the same division between the stakeholders and the decision makers as in the Taos Regional plan. Over the past few years the ISC has initiated a process to update all the regional water plans. Unfortunately, in the Middle Rio Grande, the Council of Governments has taken over the organization of the steering committee assigned to guide the update and the Water Assembly has been denied membership on that committee. The Assembly represents the diverse community of stakeholders, not the governmental interests that are now guiding the process.

The elephant in the room in the Middle Rio Grande Regional Water Plan is the fact that the waters remain unadjudicated. The (OSE) and the ISC don’t want to touch that adjudication with a ten-foot pole. This is Frank Titus, a member of the Water Assembly and longtime hydrologist who has worked for the USGS and New Mexico Tech: “I suggest it’s because the concept of adjudicating the Middle Rio Grande ranges from worrisome, to threatening, to terrifying for individuals who understand its potential ramifications. This includes personnel of the OSE and many legislators.” And what are the ramifications? Number one, an evaluation of the “voodoo” accounting that has allowed the over appropriation of water will threaten many water rights; and number two, agricultural surface water rights are senior and underground water rights that have been pumped to facilitate urban growth and large farm irrigation are junior. The powers that be don’t want to adjudicate when it’s urban water rights that are at risk.

The process to update the regional plans appears to lie squarely in the hands of the decision makers, not the stakeholders. Water policies that were developed by the stakeholders to address public welfare and conservation are subsumed in the rush to fund infrastructure projects that require the movement of water out of its area of origin. And as will no doubt be demonstrated in today’s decision regarding the Gila River diversion, the ISC decision makers, just as the regional water plan decision makers, want to make these decisions without the scrutiny of the stakeholders.

I’d like to end with a quote that we ran in La Jicarita a number of years ago. It’s taken from a study called “Climate Change and Its Implications for New Mexico’s Water Resources and Economic Opportunities,” by NMSU Agricultural Economics Professor Brian Hurd and UNM Civil Engineering Professor Julie Coonrod: “Under current climate there is virtually no spare water in New Mexico. Imagine a very plausible future, as this study attempts, of significantly less water and at the same time significantly more people.” They warn us that water transfers from agriculture to urban use will hugely impact not only our ability to grow food in the future but our “environment, our identity, and the character of New Mexico. . . . Irrigated lands support more than crops. They provide habitat for wildlife, open space and scenic vistas for the backdrop to New Mexico’s thriving art, tourist and recreation economies.”

 

 

 

 

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One comment

  1. Wow. To hear about that interview with Estevan López made me wish he was in position of authority here – to see that someone in that realm is thinking about growth and seeing it as a priority seems rare.

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