At the quarterly public meeting held by the Interstate Stream Commission on the Arizona Water Settlements Act process, the main agenda item was to receive public input on a protocol for operation of the ISC-AWSA Input Group and public involvement.

The Input Group advises the ISC on issues brought to the members of the group, which is made up of interest groups in the four-county area of Grant, Hidalgo, Catron and Luna. The 2004 AWSA allocates an annual average 14,000 acre-feet to the area and $66 million for water-related projects and an additional $66 million for construction of a New Mexico Unit.

The stakeholder groups represented include four county representatives, two from municipal, two environmental, two ranching, two farming, two business, and one from mining.

Craig Roepke, ISC deputy director, introduced Helen Sobien as the new Gila engineer hired by the ISC for helping with studies of proposals. She typed the notes for the evening and projected them on a screen as she typed.

Through a previous stakeholder process, proposals for projects were developed and presented to the ISC for consideration for AWSA water and/or funding. Out of the 45 submitted, 16 were chosen by the ISC as possibilities and in need of further study. A Gila Committee, which consists of the New Mexico State Engineer Scott Verhines, the ISC Chairman Jim Dunlap and ISC commissioners Buford Harris and Blane Sanchez refine requests and ask the input group for advice.

The process of determining what New Mexico will decide on the use of the water and funding will lead up to the deadline for a state decision to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior by the end of 2014 and is now in the hands of the ISC, which will make the final decision.

Roepke emphasized that public input and involvement is necessary for the process, but some members of the Input Group are adamant at not allowing the public to participate in deliberations. Other members are just as resolute that the public must be allowed to at least observe the proceedings.

During the past couple of meetings, the discussion has continued. Most want the meetings closed, but "a couple who want the meetings open to the public," created an impasse. Roepke asked the facilitators to develop a protocol for the meetings, which was the topic of conversation at the public meeting.

Roepke pointed out that there have been in excess of 200-250 meetings on the issue since 2000. "The public meetings did not progress well. Some felt the meetings were getting tied up in the process and not making progress, so many quit attending, because they felt the public meetings were counter-productive. There was a real polarization of interests."

The facilitators proposed keeping the Input Group private, but holding public meetings to hear about the meetings and to give community members a chance to comment on what was discussed in the Input Group meetings.

Lois Fuller of Glenwood, who had many questions throughout the evening meeting, asked the reasons for keeping them closed, as it seemed to her it might bog down the process.

Roepke said it was suggested that the meetings be modified to let the public observe, but not participate. "The members of the Input Group are telling me they want a closed, executive-type session where they can speak freely."

Tom Bates, who was serving as facilitator, as neither of the professional facilitators were able to attend, said Input Group members thought they would receive better input if members were not playing to an audience. "The facilitators also thought it was easier to manage the meetings if they were private."

Walter "Ski" Szymanski said: "At none of the previous meetings did I observe a slowing down of the process by the public. As an interested community member, I want to hear what's going on and not have meetings held in secret."

Kim Clark, Silver City-Grant County Association of REALTORS executive director, said if the input meeting were open to the public, but the public might not be able to offer input, it would be counter-productive.

Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance executive director, said having the public observe would be a good compromise. "The Input Group should be able to say anything."

Earl Montoya, Silver City resident, said he attended the meeting because of the recent Gila River Festival, where old maps were brought out and shown.

"A lot of the land was land grant to Hispanics and Native Americans," he said. "A lot of it is not resolved, and may be changed, because Native American rights were stolen." He continued that at least one tribe, the Chi'hene Apache may have claim to 1.2 million acres in the Gila National Forest. He alleged the tribe had been recognized by the federal government, but recognition was withdrawn from the tribe right before the GNF was created. The land stretched from the Black Range to Arizona up to the Hot Spring and Monticello.

Roepke said the ISC recognizes the conflict between full public access and members being able to give "sometimes controversial comments."

"I want to reiterate and emphasize that the Input Group has no decision-making duties," Roepke said. "The ISC Gila Committee brings the members something like a scope of work and asks for input. Members of the Input Group are also free to bring information back to the public."

M.H. "Dutch" Salmon said it seemed to him that one group was not represented in the Input Group membership—recreation, including fishing, hunting, bird-watching, camping and hiking.

Allyson Siwik, who serves on the Input Group as one of the two conservation representatives, said she feels strongly the meetings should be open. She pointed out that the first one was taped by Community Access Television of Silver City, but was never shown. She alleged the ISC never followed through with the compromise.

"I am concerned because of the meeting minutes," Siwik said. "Sometimes the Input Group is not allowed to review them before they are sent out. For the July meeting, I do not concur with comments as recorded. The www.nmawsa.org website is an excellent place for comments, but if someone has to wait for the quarterly public meeting to make comments, it's not easy. I hope the ISC will reconsider and allow the public to attend."

Linda Stailey, Gila Valley resident, said the discussion was "beating a dead horse. The issue has been brought up in every quarterly meeting since the Input Group was formed. I can go to the website and get information."

Peter Russell, representing the town of Silver City, said it is always brought up, because "the meetings should be open. I understand about grandstanding, but the ISC is asking for input. It is important to hear that people have concerns."

Montoya brought up his second input. "I don't know if you're watching what's going on in Arizona and New Mexico, but projections are for extreme drought continuing. Water may become invaluable for agriculture to keep people alive, if it comes to pass, as the models indicate."

Russell reverted back to the topic of the Input Group meetings. "It is difficult, if the information is not getting adequately recorded in details." He said if the public were allowed to attend, it would help keep the details clearer than what may be recorded.

Siwik said at the last Input Group meeting, Catron County gave an update with changes to the watershed restoration project they had previously submitted. The changes were requested because of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which consumed much of the timber that needed thinning.

Fuller protested two of the protocol bullets as being too vague, with the words, "if possible" before the proposed timelines.

Roepke said the protocol is not only for how the meetings are held, but also for a schedule of how and when notes are constructed and a timeline for notifications and postings. "It is much quicker than the facilitators want, but we said it had to be faster." He said sometimes meetings are required when issues come up fast, because of requests from the ISC or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for work to be done by a certain date.

He asked about setting up regularly scheduled quarterly public meetings. "If it's possible, the Input Group will meet just prior to the public meeting."

Nancy Kaminski, resident, said: "We come to the public meeting after the Input Group does its thing, but how do we know what they did. I'm still in the dark."

Stevens said on a related note, often it is difficult to impossible to hear in the meeting rooms. "Why can't we get audio equipment for meetings, so people can hear?"

The next article will conclude the meeting.

Live from Silver City

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