Secret Plan

Former Interstate Stream Commission director sues over alleged violations of NM Open Meetings Act for Gila plan

There’s a new battle breaking out in the war over the Gila River—the future of which will be decided within the next 76 days.

This time, the salvo isn't over endangered fish, water rights or even how much a new diversion project on the Gila in southwestern New Mexico might cost taxpayers.

Rather, it has to do with transparency.

Yesterday, Norman Gaume, a retired director of the state's Interstate Stream Commission, sued his former agency for violating the Open Meetings Act. Filed in the state's First Judicial District court in Santa Fe, the suit alleges the commission routinely violated the state's law on meetings and transparency during its planning for the Gila.

Having had 10 years to study the issues, the commission must decide by the end of the year if New Mexico will meet future water demands in rural Southwestern New Mexico through efficiency and conservation or divert the Gila's waters, build a "New Mexico Unit" of the Central Arizona Project and trade water with a Native American tribe near Phoenix.

Represented by Brian Egolf, of the Santa Fe-based Egolf + Ferlic + Day, Gaume is petitioning the court for a temporary restraining order and injunction, saying that the commission's Gila subcommittee – chaired by Buford Harris, an irrigator in southern New Mexico – has met regularly since 2010 without issuing public notice or opening the meetings to citizens.

Gaume has been a vocal opponent of diversion since earlier this year, when he began questioning the engineering plans and costs of the proposed projects.

"I really thought in the beginning that pointing out the facts or what we need to be evaluating would be sufficient," says Gaume, who directed the commission between 1997 and 2002 and until recently had a contract with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation nonprofit. "But I've concluded that facts don't matter," he says. "I've concluded that all the decision-making is being conducted in secret. And that's against the law."

Gaume points out that the opening paragraph of the state's Open Meetings Act which states, "All persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them."

Given its potential economic and environmental impacts, the Gila project, he says, "really needs robust public discussion."

Earlier this year, Gaume also requested documents from the Interstate Stream Commission under New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Act. Specifically, he wanted to see how employees of the commission had determined how much water a diversion project on the Gila would actually capture.

But the state has denied release of that data, saying that the staff's calculations are not subject to inspection under IPRA.

The state agency did not respond to SFR requests for comment or information. But under IPRA, an agency can claim an exemption restricting the release of state agency databases for commercial or political purposes.

One retired state employee says the commission's refusal to release the data is ironic.

Speaking of his experiences working with the Interstate Stream Commission on projects across the state, including on the Rio Grande and the Pecos River, David Propst, formerly of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, says the commission's staff and contractors routinely request raw data and even original field notes from other agencies and contractors.

This is a practice that dates back more than a decade.

"They've got a history of demanding the raw data from other agencies if they happen to not like what the results are," Propst says. "It's really ironic that the ISC is refusing to release data and yet they have no qualms demanding the original, raw data from others."

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