The New Mexico State Engineer is not just another agency chief or cabinet member who manages a bureaucracy. The state engineer exercises an extremely important adjudicatory function in New Mexico, ruling on people’s water rights. In this regard, he or she acts as a judge who must be seen as independent from influence by the governor, other individuals and special interest groups. This is the presumption of our water code.
For this reason, the appeal from state engineer decisions is to the courts, not to the governor or any other executive department official. In addition, the job requires longevity beyond the normal cabinet term of four to eight years in order to build and exercise the competency required of the state engineer.
Ever since Gary Johnson broke with long-standing tradition and replaced the state engineer at the beginning of his term as governor, new governors have installed a new state engineer at the beginning of their terms. The frequency of replacement of the state engineer became even greater recently when Susana Martinez replaced the state engineer in the midst of her term as governor, ousting the state engineer she herself had earlier appointed.
For many years, New Mexico had a towering figure, Steve Reynolds, as state engineer. He served from 1956, when he was appointed by Gov. John Simms, until he died, in 1990. His tenure as state engineer spanned many terms of governors of both political parties. He served as state engineer for 34 years, even though the statutory term for state engineer is only two years. Over time, he established a reputation for competence and integrity. He came to be the most revered figure in state government.
As a result, whenever governors during that period considered replacing Mr. Reynolds, they ran into a wall of opposition, and soon reconsidered and withdrew the idea. This was important because it meant that Mr. Reynolds was independent and not beholden to any particular governor or special interest. In fact, he cancelled some of Gov. Simms’ personal water rights while Gov. Simms was still in office. Yet, Gov. Simms was heard to say years later that the single most important thing he did as governor was to appoint Steve Reynolds state engineer.
Other states do not allow their water rights decision-makers to be switched at the behest of an incoming governor. In Colorado and Kansas, for instance, the counterparts to our state engineer are civil servants protected by the civil service system or by a strong tradition of retention during good behavior, independent of gubernatorial terms.