Former Journal Staffer Weighs In on What He Sees as a Diversion From Gila Dam Issue

January 19th, 2015 · 1 Comment · environment, journalism, open government, state government

By Denise Tessier

Today’s Albuquerque Journal Op Ed Page contained an opinion piece that could have fit in nicely here at ABQJournalWatch as a post. So, I bring attention to it, noting that its author, Bill Hume, is uniquely qualified to write this piece about the Journal’s coverage of the Gila River “diversion” project.

Central issue on Gila diversion is ignored” (Jan. 19) even used a term I would have used had I been in possession of the special insight needed to write such a column – which I am not. That term is that the Journal “piled on” by publishing an editorial based on an opinion column, rather than producing an editorial based on a news column. This practice of “piling on” would have been frowned upon in the old days of journalism (as we at JournalWatch have pointed out when the Journal editorial board engaged in this practice before).

In the column, Hume called out the Journal for focusing more on what he called the “side show” than on the central issues facing New Mexico with regard to the Gila River, saying the Journal has “focused on maneuverings cynically undertaken only to divert resources and attention from the real questions.” He then made the point that focusing on these maneuverings left less time and space for explaining to the public the Interstate Stream Commission’s deliberations on how the state should proceed in trying to comply with the Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act of 2004.

At this point, I would inject an observation of my own about Gila River coverage. I find that the coverage’s consistent use of the word “diversion” has been euphemistic to the point that the public perhaps doesn’t realize that this government-speak actually means damming the Gila, New Mexico’s last free-flowing river, located in the first area in the nation to be given the special designation as “wilderness.”

I have scanned articles looking for the word “dam” when reading stories like “Gila River diversion project gets boost” by the Associated Press, which ran on the Journal’s front page on Nov. 15. The word does not appear.

The word is used, however, and more than once, in a Writers on the Range piece by environmental writer Laura Paskus, which ran in the Journal North edition Nov. 14. Headlined, “Are we going to turn the Gila into another ‘ghost river’ in New Mexico?” that story concluded:

As someone who’s always wondering what future generations will think about the things we leave behind, I hope that, in a generation or two, people won’t be staring down at yet another ghost river and the ruins of a failed dam.

As Paskus explained in her article, which was written before the Interstate Stream Commission’s decision deadline, the ISC’s options in coming to terms with the 2004 settlement act were:

Should New Mexico spend $66 million in federal money to meet future water needs in four rural counties through conservation and efficiency?

Or should the state accept an additional $34 to $63 million from the federal government to help build a diversion dam on the Gila, just downstream from where the river pours out of the nation’s first congressionally designated wilderness area?

As she noted, the ISC had 10 years to come up with a decision. To summarize the projections related to damming, or diversion, quoting from Paskus:

Lowball early estimates of the projects put costs from $42 million to $500 million – plus a half-million to $9 million annually to operate and maintain the infrastructure.

Note that these estimates exceed what the feds would pay New Mexico to build the dam, the high estimate a shortfall of nearly half a billion dollars that would likely would fall to New Mexicans to pay.

Then there are design problems:

Outside analysts, including those with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, have pointed out problems with the proposed locations, identified engineering flaws with the structural designs and questioned the ability of the reservoirs actually to hold water.

And then there is a question as to whether the “diversion” would provide the 14,000 acre feet annually allotted in the settlement act:

. . .state officials don’t even know how much water – in real life, as opposed to on legal documents – the Gila could yield each year.

Retired Interstate Stream Commission director Norman Gaume and two other experts recently looked at the Gila’s historical flows and estimated that the state might get about 12,500 acre-feet of water a year.

But, about half the time, they said, the annual yield would likely be zero. Factor into that a recent climate study showing that, as the region continues to warm, the Gila’s annual flows will average 8 percent less than between 1951 and 2012.

All those facts seem daunting, and yet all indications currently point to the state choosing diversion over conservation and efficiency.

Paskus, in her article, had hoped for the former, writing:

Using water more efficiently, conserving what we have – I hope we’re wise enough to try that first.

In November, the ISC voted to build a diversion, and did decide to send some funding toward conservation as well.

In the interim, however, retired ISC director Gaume filed a lawsuit alleging violation of the Open Meetings Act. Hume called it a “brazen attempt to win the game by stopping it on a technicality until the clock ran out. When the court didn’t go along, the ISC sought costs from Gaume.”

As Hume pointed out, the Journal ran an opinion column by Journal writer John Fleck “making clear that he thought Gaume’s claim might have merit and the ISAC move was designed to stop citizens from seeking redress . . .” Subsequently, the Journal “piled on, as Hume put it, ” with its editorial, “Stream commission’s suit a slap to transparency (Jan. 10).”

Hume makes it clear he does not think Gaume’s claim had merit, pointing out that many major policy decisions are formulated in subcommittee for action by the parent body, and that subcommittees are not subject to open meetings notice laws.

Not everyone agrees with Hume’s assessment, however, as one commenter wrote below Hume’s column posted at ABQJournal.com:

. . .I believe that the present Journal editor correctly interpreted the ISC’s counter-suit as a punitive measure against Norm Gaume. I’d suggest that the agency willfully exaggerates the effects of postponing their meeting and incurs greater costs by pursuing a slap suit against a private citizen at public expense.

Hume does make a salient point in saying that the lawsuit took up valuable newspaper real estate that could have been devoted to the core issues facing the state in terms of the Gila. But that is the nature of news: The suit was filed and its unfolding merited coverage. The only flexibility here was in devoting the extra space to an editorial after the topic had been covered by Fleck.

Which points up another vagary of having fewer staff members to cover such things as the Gila River. The Journal’s science writer, John Fleck, does a yeoman’s job covering water for the Journal, complemented by stories from other reporters, like Paskus’ freelance article that ran in the North. But the Journal does not have the staff it once had.

Hume wrote:

Of course, the Journal doesn’t know first-hand what has gone on over the years among the Gila subcommittee, the commission itself and environmentalists, because it only sends somebody to report on ISC meetings when someone tells them something controversial is coming up.

And in his closing salvo against the Journal’s coverage of the open meetings aspect of the case, Hume wrote:

This debate should have been focusing on the benefits of additional water balanced against the ecological consequences of harvesting that water. Instead, the real issue has been obscured by cynical pettifogging. The people of New Mexico deserve better from New Mexico’s leading news source.

Hume, for seven years my boss on the Journal editorial page, not only worked at the Journal four decades, but he developed an expertise on water issues, which is why he was tapped by Gov. Bill Richardson to serve as his adviser on that topic after Richardson took office. So, Hume understands how both the Journal and state government work, in addition to his knowledge about water.

Hence his unique insight into this 10-year process related to the Gila.

In the column, he also pointed out Journal inconsistency in criticizing former State Sen. Manny Aragon for representing private school bus companies in an action against a state agency, but expressing no concern that House Minority Leader Brian Egolf represented Gaume against the ISC.

(And leave it to Hume to casually insert into a column a term as illustratively colorful as “pettifogging.”)

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Susan Clair

    Excellent, informative article!
    I’d certainly hate to see the Gila River dammed.

    Thank you.

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