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Vote allowed on Gila project

SANTA FE – A judge has cleared the way for the Interstate Stream Commission to decide on Monday whether to proceed with the Gila River diversion project.

State District Judge Francis Mathew on Thursday dissolved a temporary restraining order in an open meetings lawsuit brought by a former ISC official who says discussions about the project have been shrouded in secrecy, violating state law.

The ISC and a group of local governments from southwestern New Mexico told Mathew at a hearing that if he extended the restraining order, the state would miss a Dec. 31 deadline for notifying the federal government whether it wants to proceed with the project and would lose $62 million in federal funding.

Pete Domenici Jr., a lawyer for the local governments, said that was unfair and unacceptable.

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“This is somebody trying to gut the future of southwestern New Mexico,” he told the court.

Critics claim the project, which would divert and store water from the Gila for farms and cities, is too expensive – up to $1 billion, they say – and environmentally damaging for the relatively small amount of water it would yield.

“The commission is finally able to get on with doing the business that it’s required to do under state law. … This case will not obstruct that,” said Amy Haas, the ISC’s acting director and general counsel, after the ruling.

The decision will be the subject of Monday’s scheduled meeting, she said. Commission staff has already recommended the state proceed with the diversion.

Former ISC Director Norm Gaume filed the lawsuit, alleging the agency violated the Open Meetings Act by taking a series of actions in a subcommittee that met without public notice.

“It’s highly influential … but it’s all been done in secret,” Gaume’s lawyer, Brian Egolf, told the judge.

The ISC denies that; attorney Keitha Leonard said the ISC’s Gila subcommittee “was not a subterfuge to get around the Open Meetings Act.”

Gaume’s lawsuit on the underlying transparency issues remains alive; a hearing is scheduled for April. But once Mathew lifted the temporary restraining order, Gaume dropped his bid for the next step, an injunction.

Egolf told the Journal it’s clear the commission has already decided to divert and dam the Gila.

“Once the vote is done on Monday, there’s nothing left to restrain,” he said.

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