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Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the Grant County Commission regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21, with some commentary from the Tuesday work session.

Public comment took up about half the meeting

The Grant County Commission held one set of meetings in February because of conflicts with legislative duties by elected officials and staff.

The regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21, held a full house of people giving a great deal of public comment on several issues, some of which were on the agenda and others not.

The calm before the storm of public comment was a public hearing on an ordinance "authorizing a tax rebate to benefit low-income property taxpayers for taxable years 2013-2014." It must be considered in the odd-numbered years.

At the work session on Tuesday, it was explained that a residential property owner having income of less than $24,000 a year, if the person pays taxes, could qualify for a rebate up to $350 or half that, if filing separately. Attorney Abigail Robinson said she had compared Grant County numbers to Santa Fe and Los Alamos, which are the only two counties in the state with the ordinance. Santa Fe, although it is five times larger in population than Grant County, has similar demographics to Grant County. She took what Santa Fe County has had to pay and divided it by five, coming up with a potential bill for Grant County of $60,000 to $100,000 a year. The resident takes the rebate on their taxes, the state sends a bill for the rebate to the county, and the bill must be paid within a short time.

"If a lot of people apply for the rebate, it could cost the county a lot of money," Robinson said at the work session.

At the Tuesday work session, Commission Chairman Brett Kasten suggested it should be a priority next year for the New Mexico Association of Counties.

During the Thursday regular meeting, Commissioner Hall made a motion to disapprove the ordinance. The motion passed to disapprove the ordinance.

To start off public comment, Sally Smith, who served on an advisory committee for the New Mexico Environment Department's proposed copper rule, spoke to the issue of the resolution of support for the rule, which the county would consider later in the meeting. Smith is also a co-founder of the Gila Resources Information Project begun in 1998 to ensure "adequate closure plans for the mines. I have followed the permitting of the mines."

She said she believed the copper rules were not correctly written. The purpose of the rule is to protect surface and groundwater. "Water is more precious than jobs or the economy. You have the responsibility to protect water. There is no question water is polluted above quality standards."

Smith read part of a long list of complaints and said many residents live within 15 miles of the mines. She reported that 20,000 acres of water are damaged by different contaminants. "It is assumed that water contamination will remain for at least 100 years."  

She said, in the process of the advisory committee, "which was dominated by Freeport McMoRan, we reached an agreement in June. We submitted comments and then we were dismissed. Then Freeport submitted comments to the Environment Department, which were inappropriate to the protection of water."

Walter "Ski" Szymanski said the commissioners were well aware that under the Arizona Water Settlements Act, the four southwest counties of Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna "are entitled to receive and use $66 million for any water project that meets a water supply demand." In 2011, a regional water supply plan was proposed, and the county and municipalities within it signed onto the plan.

The stated purpose is to serve approximately 26,000 people with reliable access to local public supplies of drinking water, making new sources available to meet demand and conserving local public water supplies by re-using municipal effluent water through return-flow credits.

"No harm would come to the Gila environment as a result of our proposal," he quoted from the plan.

"To the best of my knowledge that proposal is still part of the planning process."

He said the plan made sense to him and many others in the community. "As of two days ago, it is also a project that you are now being heavily pressured to withdraw by John Arthur Smith under his threat to, at great taxpayer expense, construct a major Gila River diversion and pipeline to pump Gila River water to Las Cruces."

Szymanski pointed out that if the AWSA water were utilized in the county, users would have to pay the Central Arizona Project to ensure water to downstream users. "You should know that the CAP water needed for this exchange is neither guaranteed nor is it cheap…. By the time a new Gila diversion could be built, the exchange cost (for the 14,000 acre-feet allocated to the region) may be well over $2 million per year.

"So, I do not support, and you commissioners should not support Sen. Smith's diversion project, because it is too expensive, would destroy the ecological values of the Gila River that provide economic benefit to the region from recreation and tourism, and it increases the odds of exporting Gila River water and other water rights into the Rio Grande," he said.

Szymanski said: "I do support common-sense, cost-effective non-diversion AWSA water projects, like this regional water supply and distribution system project. … I urge you not to support the withdrawal of the regional water supply and distribution system project now pending before the ISC."

Kasten said he had not been contacted by Smith to withdraw the project.

Art Martinez, retired Western New Mexico University professor and self-described community activist, said: "In Santa Fe, they have once again been reviewing and have tabled the bill to prevent (driver's) licenses to illegal immigrants. The license for them is humane and moralistic and should remain." He asked Sheriff Raul Villanueva not to join the effort to repeal the law.

"Many of us have realized that you county commissioners have positive intentions," Martinez continued to another subject. "But for the Southwest County Commissioners Alliance, you haven't realized many yet. …It's embarrassing when others, not commissioners, come forward with ridiculous comments. I hope they will not continue."

He said the reality appears that the political undertaking is "suffering from backfire resistance. Many have lost confidence and trust in this effort. There is increasing criticism of this entity. Keep your good intentions in front of you. There is even talk of retaliation at polling places. In the end, there is a hell of a lot of work you can come back and do for us. Keep a level, balanced look at it."

Allyson Siwik, Gila Resources Information Project director, said she opposes the copper mines rule as inconsistent, because it will allow the pollution of groundwater. The New Mexico attorney general is also in opposition because it allows pollution. "The New Mexico Water Quality Division has statute to oppose this.  How can the commission support groundwater contamination? You allow, on one hand, to have the mines waste water, and on the other hand you want to divert water to get more."

Siwik then said she was speaking with her "Gila Conservation Coalition hat" on about the decision on whether to use Gila River water, which would have huge impacts on the area and the residents. "You potentially support this diversion, and potentially will withdraw the cost-effective regional water plan, before you have the Bureau of Reclamation results of the full analyses."

"I strongly encourage a public debate on what's going on right now," Siwik continued. "The decision can't be made in a back room contrary to public transparency."

Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance director, said she supports the regional water plan, the reuse of effluent by Deming and Bayard, and agricultural and municipal conservation.

"The Deming project would cost $323 million, more than double the $128 available, and the exchange costs by 2018 will be $2 million a year," Stevens alleged. "It is estimated operating and maintenance costs would be $3 million a year, with the area left holding the bag. Taking the water in a pipeline to Deming increases the possibility of it going to Las Cruces.

"I must also mention the Forest Service travel management plan," Stevens said. "At the meeting, you said 1,200 miles of roads are not mentioned in the plan, but they are mentioned on page 46. The roads were closed and decommissioned."

Jim McIntosh, a teacher with a rare snow day off work, said he wanted to speak up about support for non-diversion alternatives to use AWSA water.

"We are finally learning what we need to protect for our country," McIntosh said. "We are learning to live within the Gila River limits. Also the Rio Grande is living within its limits and creating blessed limitations."

He said he wants to keep the Gila water within the watershed. "A pipeline to Deming will open the way to divert water to Las Cruces and El Paso. We need to steward the respective watersheds."

The next article will begin to cover other public comment, beginning with Gabe Holguin, the Gila National Forest fire management officer, discussing predicted weather for the upcoming months.

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