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Proposal calls for revamping key New Mexico water commission

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The process for making appointments to a powerful commission charged with protecting, conserving and developing water resources across New Mexico would be overhauled under a measure that some lawmakers will be pushing during the upcoming legislative session.

Efforts to revamp the Interstate Stream Commission have been percolating for years, and the latest attempt comes as a new governor takes office amid a persistent drought and a high-stakes battle with Texas over management of the Rio Grande.

Supporters of the legislation are looking to remove politics from the process in hopes of seating a more diverse and experienced commission in preparation for an uncertain water future.

New Mexico Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe

“The thinking behind this bill was to broaden the makeup of the commission,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe. “You could have different viewpoints for that water policy piece and balance out the appointments so you don’t have these potential wild swings in policy depending on the philosophy of the governor.”

It’s the governor who currently appoints the commissioners.

There are a number of other state regulatory boards that are structured in a similar way, and university boards of regents also are made up of gubernatorial appointees. Critics of the system say there’s always a danger of the positions being used as political favors.

Under the legislation, the governor and the Legislature would each have four appointments to the stream commission, with no more than two of them being from the same political party.

The appointees also would have to meet certain qualifications. The list calls for engineers and representatives from irrigation districts, utilities and research institutions.

The Interstate Stream Commission in recent years has come under fire for violating state transparency laws over the development of plans for managing the state’s share of the Gila River. In 2017, there was more fallout as the commission’s director, its legal counsel and other key staffers left.

“There’s no reason that basic water resource management in this state should be partisan,” said Norm Gaume, a former director. “It should be fact- and science-based on the merits. The ISC has gotten so far from that.”

Norm Gaume

Gaume suggested the legislation will be essential to New Mexico’s water future, citing among other challenges the case over the Rio Grande.

Texas took its case to the Supreme Court in 2013, asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater north of the state line so that more of the Rio Grande could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso.

In dry years when there’s not enough water in the river, farmers and pecan growers in southern New Mexico are forced to rely on wells to keep their crops and trees alive.

Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas. New Mexico argues it’s meeting its delivery obligations to Texas.

It will likely be years before the court issues a ruling on the merits of the case, but attorneys have warned that the financial penalties could be steep and that New Mexico could be forced to send more water downstream.

“I hope we can figure out how to get to the table on Texas v. New Mexico and figure out an exit strategy because I think the risks here are huge,” Wirth said.

New Mexico lawmakers also are expecting other water bills to be filed during the 60-day session, including measures aimed at more effective water planning and the state’s compliance with interstate compacts.