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Editorial: Transparency best policy for Gila water flow data

Water fights aren’t new to New Mexico and the Southwest.

But this one isn’t just about who has water and who doesn’t. It’s also about a tug of war over the release of technical information about the Gila River Project that proposes to divert water allotted for use in New Mexico instead of letting it flow downstream into Arizona.

Proponents want to use Gila water for New Mexico agriculture and to supply cities in the southwest part of the state. Critics contend the river doesn’t have enough water to reliably divert, the project is expensive and it could environmentally damage the Gila.

Norm Gaume, a former director of the Interstate Stream Commission, wanted a copy of the spreadsheet state officials were using to calculate the amount of water in the river before the commission makes a decision about continuing with the multi-million dollar project. He wanted to see if it backed up state officials’ assertion that there is enough flow in the river to support the project.

Gaume filed a request under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, but the commission staff refused to release it, citing an exemption under state law that allows state agencies to withhold databases. Gaume got the information anyway, because the ISC inadvertently released a version to him with some other records.

And, he and his colleagues reported a very different river flow picture than the one the state had been showing the public. In their view, the supply of usable water was “low and erratic.” “It never could be characterized as a reliable water supply.”

River flow sufficiency aside, decisions about spending millions of taxpayer dollars on projects – in this case more than $100 million – theoretically to benefit the public should be based on the best information available.

In a recent UpFront column, Journal reporter John Fleck questioned whether the agency should keep this kind of information under wraps. Fleck says most other state agencies routinely post spreadsheets for public view.

State law says information contained in a state agency database “shall be a public record and shall be subject to disclosure. …” It also says the agency “may authorize a copy” if the requesting person agrees not to use the database for any political or commercial purpose unless approved in writing by the agency.

One could argue this request doesn’t fit the political definition of the law. And one could also argue that officials, elected or appointed, acting on the public behalf often make decisions that have political ramifications.

But without question, the commission has the discretion to release this kind of information. So it should err on the side of transparency rather than trying to squeeze the last drop out of a questionable loophole.

Its conduct calls its own conclusions into question.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.