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Gila contract improper, diversion opponent says

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The staff of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission signed a $500,000 engineering contract for work on a proposed Gila River water diversion project without getting approval in a public meeting, according to documents made public in an open meetings lawsuit.

Craig Roepke, a staff member working on the controversial Gila project, signed the contract with Albuquerque engineering firm Bohannan Huston Inc. on May 2, 2012, according to documents provided by the state to attorneys for project opponent Norm Gaume.

The following month, Roepke asked in a public meeting for retroactive approval of the decision, without telling commissioners the contract already had been signed, according to a staff report and minutes of the meeting.

The project would divert water from the Gila for use in southwestern New Mexico farms and cities.

Critics say a diversion, which according to a Bureau of Reclamation analysis could cost up to $1 billion, is far too costly and environmentally damaging given the relatively small amount of water it would yield for farms and cities.

Supporters say New Mexico cannot afford to let the water pass unused to Arizona.

Gaume, former Interstate Stream Commission director, sued the state in October, alleging a pattern of secrecy surrounding the Gila project that violated the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.

The state’s approval of the contract without any public notice reflects a pattern of secrecy in its decision-making over the project, said Santa Fe attorney Brian Egolf, who is representing Gaume.

State staff are legally authorized to approve contracts up to $50,000, but contracts above that amount require public notice and approval by the commission, Egolf said. The Bohannan Huston agreement is only one of a number of Gila-related contracts approved without public notice or discussion, according to Egolf.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Roepke declined comment. An attorney and agency spokeswoman also did not respond to a request for comment.

Gaume’s lawsuit has added turmoil to the already divisive process. The state faces a Dec. 31 deadline to notify the federal government if it wants to proceed with the project and receive $62 million for the work.

Last Friday, Roepke recommended to the commission that the state proceed with a diversion.

But in response to Gaume’s suit, a District Court judge in Santa Fe in October issued a restraining order blocking a decision until the court could sort out the open meeting allegations.

District Judge Raymond Ortiz, who issued the original restraining order, withdrew from the case last week. It has been reassigned to Judge Frank Mathew, with a hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

A hearing of the full Interstate Stream Commission is tentatively scheduled for Monday to make a final decision on Roepke’s recommendation, but that hearing remains in limbo pending the outcome of Thursday’s hearing on Gaume’s suit.