New Mexico water commission votes to divert Gila River despite open meetings complaints

The Gila River. Photo by Avelino Maestas

A New Mexico water commission yesterday decided to go forward with a plan to divert thousands of acre-feet of water from the Gila River, despite complaints by activists that it violated open meetings laws.

A former staff director of the commission, Norman Guame, brought a lawsuit charging the violations and in late October New Mexico District Judge Raymond Ortiz issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), from moving forward with the plans, as we reported here. However, Ortiz recused himself from the case in mid-November for reasons that have not been made public.

The new judge assigned to the case, Francis J. Matthew, on Nov. 21 dissolved the restraining order, citing in part a state court rule that requires a plaintiff to post bond when requesting a restraining order. With the state poised to lose as much as $62 million in federal funding if it does not move forward with a plan to divert the river, the judge “wondered what kind of bond Guame could provide for security,” reported Avelino Maestas, editor of the Silver City Daily Press (and a former Sunlight staff member). Guame’s attorney offered $500; the judge deemed that insufficient.

Guame agreed to drop his motion for a preliminary injunction against the ISC, so the commission may move forward with plans. However, the court will still hear the case on whether or not the open meeting laws were violated next spring.

At issue is a project to divert 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Environmentalists have been battling ranchers who want more access to water. The state is eligible for a subsidy of $34 million to $62 million if it moves forward with a plan for a diversion–however, the funds dry up if the state fails to make its plans clear to the Feds by December 31.

Environmentalists say a diversion is unnecessary, and that New Mexicans water needs could be met through better conservation. They argue the federal funds are not sufficient to cover the full costs of the project, which Guame estimates could exceed $1 billion.

Guame argues in his lawsuit that a “Gila Subcommittee” has held its meetings in secrets. Gaume argues that this violates open meeting rules requiring that “the formation of public policy or the conduct of business by vote shall not be conducted in a closed meeting.”

Guame also charges, although not in this lawsuit, that the commission earlier withheld a spreadsheet containing data on water flows in the river, which he requested under open records laws so he could conduct an independent analysis.