The Gila River in southwestern New Mexico is a fickle beast. It begins in the Mogollon Mountains, then heads through southern Arizona and into the Colorado River. Its modest flows in New Mexico drop once the snowmelt disappears, yet when severe rainstorms fall in the mountains, the river can rage.

The Gila is a long way from Santa Fe. But an upcoming decision by a state board on how to spend a chunk of cash from the feds may have repercussions statewide. Within the next six months, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) will decide whether to siphon the river's flows.

One of the alternatives being considered would place a diversion structure on the Gila, moving water out of the river and trying to sell it to cities, farms and industry.

"This is a wild river in a unique area—the nation's first wilderness—that has national value and value to people all over the state," says Norman Gaume, a former director of the ISC.

Ninety years ago this week, on June 3, 1924, the US Forest Service set aside 755,000 acres of the Gila National Forest, protecting it from development such as mining and commercial logging.

"I see this proposal as sacrificing [the river] for very little gain, at a huge cost to the benefit of a few people who are local to the area," Gaume says.

Wading into History

In the mid-20th century, New Mexico was drawn into a decadeslong legal battle between California and Arizona over the Colorado River. In the end, New Mexico was promised more water from that river, but only if it found someone in Arizona willing to trade Colorado River water for water from the Gila or its tributary, the San Francisco.

Then, 10 years ago, with the passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Congress gave New Mexico until the end of 2014 to decide: Meet water demands in the southwestern part of the state through conservation and receive $66 million in federal funding; or divert and pump the Gila's waters and receive up to $100 million.

Irrigation districts, as well as a number of towns and counties, enthusiastically supported plans for diversion.

The ISC, which enforces interstate water compacts and has powers to "investigate, protect, conserve and develop" New Mexico's waters, consists of eight members appointed by the governor, plus the state engineer. Deputy Director Craig Roepke and staff have been evaluating proposals in order to make a recommendation to the commission.

According to spokeswoman Lela Hunt, they've narrowed it down to five watershed restoration projects, four diversion and storage projects, three agricultural conservation projects, two effluent reuse projects and one municipal conservation project. Now, those 15 are being evaluated, she says, for legal and technical feasibility, economic costs and benefits, and ecological impacts.

Allyson Siwik, director of the nonprofit Gila Resources Information Project, which opposes diversion, has seen major changes in the state's process over the past few years. Originally, the public was excluded from the decision-making process. Then in 2007, Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed funding for Gila Basin water development.

"That was a changing point in the process," she says. "Then it went from an agency-led, behind-the-scenes process to one where irrigators, ranchers and environmentalists got to come to the table."

But after Gov. Susana Martinez was elected, in 2011 another new process was implemented. Stakeholders stopped meeting regularly and, says Siwik, ISC staff controlled the flow of information—even to the commissioners making the decision by year's end.

According to the ISC, staff have held more than 200 public meetings. But Siwik points out that those aren't always meetings that allow for public input. That tally includes meetings with commissions and individual organizations. Documents and presentations are posted on the commission's website, but the information can be difficult to find or confusing.

One recent presentation, titled "End Game," ends with a quote from the late Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, on whom the movie Charlie Wilson's War was based: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…and then we f****d up the endgame."

The ISC's Hunt says Roepke gave that presentation internally to staff, not to commissioners. It disappeared from the website after SFR made an inquiry.

Uniquely Non-Transparent Process

In January, the state released the preliminary engineering report for a $348 million diversion project that would store water from the Gila in nearby arroyos. The following month, state Sens. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Howie Morales, D-Silver City, introduced a bill to the New Mexico State Legislature directing the state to spend its federal money on conservation rather than diversion. But that bill didn't even pass the Senate Conservation Committee.

Now, just months before the commission will make its preliminary decision, questions remain.

One of the ISC's most vocal opponents is its former director, Norman Guame. He says the diversion project, as designed by contractor Bohannan Huston, is flawed. Sediment would plug the diversion's infrastructure, and the sandy arroyos would drain, not store, the water. Not only that but the project's $348 million pricetag—a lowball figure, he believes—would leave New Mexicans scrambling to cover costs above that $100 million from the feds.

In April, Gaume appeared before the commissioners. He was taken aback by the ISC's planning and decision-making process, which he calls "uniquely non-transparent" and "uniquely deceptive."

"I have had trouble getting reliable, factual information and believe that the information available to you is inadequate to properly inform your decision," he told them.

The retiree had spent months seeking staff models for how much water a diversion structure could take from the river­—not how much the state has rights to, but how much could physically be removed from the river.

Those two numbers are very different, he says. "How could that be?" he asks. "And how, at this point in the process, could they not have an understanding of the water available? And how could they publicly pretend that the yield of the project is equal to the water right?"

After ten years, ISC staff have failed to determine that, he says: "How will the public have any confidence that the money will be well spent and the project won't fail?"

A public meeting is scheduled for July but a specific date has not yet been determined. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has its own website, as well as one specifically for the Arizona Water Settlements Act. Dates and agendas for the commission meetings can be read online or you can call
(505) 827-6160.