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Editorial: ISC’s shenanigans damage Gila water diversion process

The state Interstate Stream Commission has been cleared to proceed with making a decision on the controversial Gila River diversion project, which it is expected to do on Monday. But its own actions leading up to this point have damaged the public’s confidence in the commission.

A district judge dissolved a temporary restraining order that was part of an open meetings lawsuit brought by former commission director Norman Gaume, who had claimed the proceedings thus far have been intentionally shielded from the public and have violated state law.

According to documents made public in the lawsuit, ISC staff member Craig Roepke signed a $500,000 engineering contract for work on the project without getting approval in a public meeting and then the following month asked in a public meeting for approval without telling commissioners the contract had already been signed.

This project has long been the subject of much controversy, and those kinds of shenanigans should stop if New Mexico taxpayers are to have any faith in the commission’s upcoming decision.

Time is of the essence. The commission has to decide by Dec. 31 whether to proceed with the water project in the southwestern part of the state. The 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act gives the state until the end of this year to exercise the right to divert up to an annual average of 14,000 acre-feet of water and get up to $62 million in federal funds if it has a water project on tap. The state already is entitled to $66 million to divert and store water from the river, pay for conservation measures, or both.

ISC staff has recommended the state proceed with the project, which has been under study for years. It would take water from the Gila River and divert it to supply water to several small communities and for agriculture.

Proponents say the water is needed in that part of the state and it would be unfair to area residents to simply let it flow downstream to Arizona.

Critics claim the project is too expensive for the relatively small amount of water it could yield and that it could be environmentally damaging.

Costs estimates vary widely, but one analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suggests the project could cost up to $1 billion once everything is taken into account.

Going forward, the commission should operate in an openly transparent manner instead of discussing the project in subcommittee meetings held without public notice and rubber-stamping contracts after they have already been inked by staff.

Whatever the commission decides regarding the project, the public needs to be part of the process because taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for a large part of the cost.

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.