The Society of Professional Journalists gave the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission the dubious honor of its sixth annual Black Hole Award, which goes to “government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”
The nomination came from NM Political Report reporter Laura Paskus, who has reported on the agency for years. “Making these sorts of heavy decisions and citing data to back those decisions but refusing to produce this data is ridiculous. Agencies should be transparent in their effects on publicly owned bodies, land or water” Gideon Grudo, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said. “They certainly shouldn’t be this aggressive to the press, either. Hats off to Laura Paskus for being persistent.”
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From the SPJ announcement: “The agency has been sued for Open Meetings Act violations, gives me plenty of hassles about releasing public documents, and for years now, has refused to answer my questions.
A bill to increase spending oversight on a proposed diversion on the Gila River passed the Senate Conservation Committee this morning—and will head next to the Senate floor. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 340, which would require the Interstate Stream Commission’s spending on the Gila River diversion to go through the normal legislative budget process. Before putting more money toward the project, officials would need to show the project is technically feasible, explain how much water is available from the river and who would use it, estimate the project’s price tag and determine how New Mexico will cover the difference between the federal subsidy and the project’s actual cost. The bill passed the committee, though four objected to the pass including Republican Sens.
When it comes to New Mexico’s proposed diversion on the Gila River, even discussions about routine financial reporting elicit passionate disagreements. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced a bill that would increase oversight of spending by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission on the diversion. During his presentation to the Senate Conservation Committee Thursday, Rue explained that the bill focuses on the process of how ISC spends federal money. “We are not here to make a judgement about the diversion,” he said.
Last month, NM Political Report wrote about how a one-sentence provision in state law emboldened an agency to keep one citizen from obtaining public information. In December, retired Interstate Stream Commission Director Norman Gaume asked his former agency for an unlocked copy of an Excel spreadsheet showing how much water is diverted from and used along the Gila River and its tributaries each year. The agency’s questionable actions against Gaume drew the attention of one of New Mexico’s U.S. Senator, and a state representative who introduced a bill to make a slight wording change to the state’s open records law. Over the past few years, Gaume has opposed the state’s plans to build a diversion along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico. With an unlocked copy of the spreadsheet, he could examine the formulas and original data within the spreadsheet.
Attorneys for the states of New Mexico and Texas learned yesterday that a lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande will head to the U.S. Supreme Court. For New Mexico, a lot is at stake. Though Texas also named Colorado in the suit, its real target is New Mexico. Texas alleges that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater connected to the river, the state is unfairly taking water from the Rio Grande that, under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, should be flowing to Texas. When Texas filed a similar suit against New Mexico about the Pecos River, the case dragged on for almost two decades, and cost both states millions of dollars.
Friday, we reported officials with the Village of Santa Clara were breathing a sigh of relief after the state deposited grant money into its bank account. That deposit occurred about a week after the New Mexico Environment Department said it would no longer accept invoices or reimbursement requests for a grant the village used to build a park. Santa Clara had received a grant under the state’s Recycling and Illegal Dumping Fund (RAID) program. The total reimbursement from NMED was $231,000, more than a third of the village’s annual budget. While NMED still hadn’t explained the letter to the press or officials, in a Silver City Daily Press story Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, is quoted saying NMED pulled the grant funding because of cuts in SB 113.
A one-sentence provision in state law is emboldening at least one agency to keep public information from seeing the light of day. All officials have to do is accuse someone of having a political agenda. For more than a year, retired Interstate Stream Commission director Norman Gaume has wanted to know how much water farmers and others currently draw from the Gila River. That’s where the state plans to build a controversial new project that would divert more water from the river. Specifically, he wondered if water users are using the maximum amount of water they’re already allotted from the river.
At Monday’s meeting of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), directors voted to accept two of the state’s regional water plans, one for Lea County and another for the Lower Pecos Valley. The plans are part of a legislatively-mandated regional water planning effort, which at some point is supposed to be rolled into an updated water plan for the entire state. The process dates back to the 1980s. Over the past few years, ISC staff, consultants and local stakeholders have updated plans for each of the state’s 16 water districts. All regional water plan must be accepted by the Interstate Stream Commission, a public body made up of governor appointees.
This week the state agency in charge of building a controversial diversion on the Gila River has reined in earlier – and costlier – plans for capturing the river’s water. The agency’s decision might mean good news for project critics who feared its environmental consequences and high cost. But many questions remain around how much money the state has to build the project, the location and scale of the diversion, and who would buy the water once it’s built.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or NMCAPE, directed its engineering contractor to continue studying only those projects that would cost $80-100 million to build. That’s how much funding New Mexico anticipates receiving from the federal government to develop water from the Gila and perhaps its tributary, the San Francisco River. This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.
The next major water project in New Mexico could be diverting the last free-flowing river in New Mexico, the Gila River. New Mexico Voices for Children became the latest group to criticize the diversion, saying the amount of money spent on it could better be spent in other ways in the state, citing a potential $1 billion cost. The cost of a diversion plan are highly debated. Some say that it would cost $330 million, others that it would cost $1 billion. When the Interstate Stream Commission voted to move ahead on the diversion, opponents of the plan pegged the cost at between $575 million and $1 billion.