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Interstate Stream Commission diversity is aim of SB 212

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

When the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission ended work on the Gila River diversion in 2020, it was a complete about-face.

The Gila River flows south of Cliff, Grant County, in June 2019. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

The previous commission had spent years and $16 million for plans to divert the river for southwest New Mexico farmers.

Senate Bill 212 would amend the makeup of the nine-member body that oversees interstate water compacts.

Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat and the bill sponsor, said the ISC’s duty to craft a long-term water plan calls for a commission that represents different political affiliations and state regions and avoids the “political pendulum swing” of changing administrations.

“The ISC is no longer just about enforcing compact rights and legal issues. It also has a really important policy purpose,” Wirth told the Journal. “When we’re asking this body to put together a water plan … that protects the ‘diverse customs, culture, environment and economic stability of the state,’ as the statute says, a diversity of appointments on the board makes sense.”

The bill has cleared two Senate committees and now moves to the full Senate.

The governor currently appoints eight commissioners, and the state engineer serves as the ninth. Members must represent “major irrigation districts or sections,” with no two from the same district or section.

SB 212 would require Senate approval of those appointments.

No more than five members could be from the same political party. The legislation would mandate at least one commissioner be a member of a New Mexico tribe or pueblo.

The commission would include the state engineer, four representatives of irrigation districts, one representative of an acequia or community ditch, one person from a drinking water utility, one member of the state water resources research institute or a New Mexico State University or University of New Mexico engineering faculty member, and one New Mexico Tech hydrogeologist or other engineer.

The bill would also limit how many members can be from the same congressional district.

ISC director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen said the “layers of requirements,” including a 10-year minimum of New Mexico water experience, are too restrictive.

“The ISC as it exists today is probably some of the most highly-qualified individuals in water in the Southwest,” he told lawmakers at a Senate Conservation Committee, adding that Commissioner Tanya Trujillo just left for a top water job in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Four current commissioners would not qualify if all the bill’s measures passed, Schmidt-Petersen said. The bill was amended so that the current commission members could finish their terms.

“Water policy is too important for our state, and we don’t want to have wild swings in water policy based on politics,” Wirth said.

The Legislature has debated versions of the ISC bill since 2015. A similar bill cleared the House and Senate in 2019, and would have divided appointments between the governor and the legislative council. That bill was pocket-vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.