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NM Interstate Stream Commission dams up water data

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Norm Gaume’s request seemed simple.

The retired engineer and former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission wanted to know how much water would be available each year to divert from the Gila River for farm and city use in southwestern New Mexico.

Proponents of the long-debated proposal say a diversion and reservoir would be a chance to use Gila water on farms and in cities in parched southwest New Mexico, water that would otherwise be lost downstream to Arizona. Critics say the amount of water is small, the cost is enormous, and the environmental damage to the relatively free-flowing Gila would be high.

The agency Gaume once headed is on the verge of making a decision about whether to proceed with the project. Gaume wanted to see if there was enough water in the river to make the investment worthwhile.

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So he asked for a copy of the spreadsheet state officials were using to calculate the answer.

State officials have repeatedly said the answer to the underlying question was “yes” – there would be enough water. But they refused to cough up the spreadsheets they were using to support the assertion.

Norm Gaume

NORM GAUME

Gaume filed a formal request under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

The staff of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission again said “no,” saying the spreadsheet met an exemption under state law that allows state agencies to withhold “databases.” The agency could release the spreadsheet if it wanted to, Interstate Stream Commission records custodian Kathleen Segura wrote in a Feb. 5, 2014 letter to Gaume, but preferred not to.

“Since (state law) gives the agency discretion to provide or withhold a database, the ISC declines to provide you the database,” Segura’s leetter said.

Gaume appealed in person to Estevan López, the director of the state agency. Again, the answer was “no.”

“My answer remains unchanged,” López emailed Gaume on April 3. “We will not make the model available to you.” If Gaume wanted, the state agency would be happy to “run certain scenarios” through the spreadsheet for Gaume, time permitting. But Gaume would not be able to see it and study it for himself.

This repeats a pattern of long standing. As long ago as 2006, when an earlier version of the data was being used to support negotiations over the project, the state refused to release the spreadsheet.

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And then, by accident, the agency that had been so steadfastly withholding the spreadsheet gave it to Gaume by mistake. It was attached to a batch of electronic documents given to Gaume last summer – “improperly provided,” in the words of Craig Roepke, the Interstate Stream Commission staffer overseeing the Gila project.

When Gaume and his colleagues analyzed the spreadsheet, they concluded that the answer it provided was very different than the one the state had been sharing with the public. The supply of usable water was “low and erratic,” Gaume told the Interstate Stream Commission last week: “It never could be characterized as a reliable water supply.”

Gaume and Peter Coha, an engineer who helped with the analysis, argue that the “average” available water supply is a misleading measure, pulled up by a handful of extremely wet years when lots of water would be available. Most of the time things will be far drier, leaving little water in most typical years. In nearly half the years analyzed, according to Coha and Gaume, there would be effectively no water to divert from the Gila River at all.

Roepke, in an interview last week, disagreed. The analysis by Gaume and his colleagues did not properly account for things like seepage from the reservoir site and evaporation that need to be taken into account before we have a clear understanding of the project’s “safe yield,” Roepke said.

The argument here is technical, and I don’t expect you to be able to come to your own conclusion, based on a few paragraphs in a newspaper column, about whether Gaume and Coha are right to suggest there isn’t enough water to make the project worthwhile. But with what could be a hundred-plus million dollar decision facing the Interstate Stream Commission later this year about whether to proceed with this project, the public has a right to expect a full and robust public discussion. Such a discussion requires that the data be fully and completely available.

Interstate Stream Commission spokeswoman Lela Hunt argued that the state is on solid legal grounds in withholding the spreadsheet.

Because the agency has determined that Roepke’s spreadsheet is a “database,” “the governing statute requires that, if an agency authorizes a copy to be made of a model, an agreement between the agency and the requestor is required that must include, in part, an assurance from the requestor that it will ‘not … use the database for any political or commercial purpose unless the purpose and use is approved in writing by the state agency that created the database.'”

If Hunt is right, that seems like a gaping loophole in the state’s public records law. The law’s whole point is that those engaged in political processes should have access to government information. In the 21st century spreadsheets are a common receptacle for such information.

Thankfully, other state agencies don’t seem to share the ISC’s legal interpretation, routinely posting literally hundreds of spreadsheets so the public can take a peek for themselves. Even the ISC has done this, for instance, with spreadsheets calculating flows and groundwater in the Pecos River Basin. Gaume said that, when he headed the agency, he never invoked this provision of the law to withhold information from the public.

Regardless of the underlying legal argument, Gaume and Coha have done a valuable service by airing the data. It’s unfortunate that it required the spreadsheet being “improperly provided” for the numbers to see the light of day.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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