Lawmakers concerned bill to tighten state water commissioner requirements is too strict

Staff vacancies already affect the NM Interstate Stream Commission

By: - March 3, 2023 5:00 am
A river runs below a cliffisde.

The Mimbres River runs through southern New Mexico in February 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission oversees stream systems in the state. Lawmakers want more advanced expertise and diversity standards for future commissioners. People that work with the commission say the proposal could cause issues for the state to find people to actually meet the new job requirements.

Senate Bill 58 would compile a new list of qualifications people must meet in order to get the unpaid commissioner gig with the Interstate Stream Commission, a subdivision of the Office of the State Engineer.

It includes having at least 10 years of experience with New Mexico water resources, being employed or acting in specific water-related positions and having minimal geographic overlap with other commissioners. It would also increase the number of Indigenous members that serve on the commission.

Southern acequia stewards try to understand ‘muddy’ disaster recovery process

The legislation passed unanimously through the House Agriculture, Acequias and Water Resources Committee on Thursday, despite repeated concerns brought up by different legislators. It next goes to the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. The bill was amended in a Senate committee and passed that chamber with a 30-6 vote.

It goes to the governor’s desk if passed by the House. In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pocket-vetoed similar legislation.

Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) is sponsoring the bill. He said the goal is to diversify commissioners. This, he hopes, creates the right balance to get his proposal through the Roundhouse again and get Lujan Grisham’s signature this time.

“The makeup of the board really should be more reflective of the diversity of water users in the state,” Wirth said.

A few legislators raised worries that not many people will meet all these new standards, leading to a lack of applications. Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell) said there could be a very narrow field of applicants that fit under this legislation.

“That pool that we’re going to be able to find people that are actually qualified to work in and that want to work in it, we’re deflating,” she said.

The Office of the State Engineer has similar concerns, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report. It said these standards would make it hard to find candidates “that meet the complex and burdensome restrictions or who would be willing to volunteer to do so.”

The Interstate Stream Commission is already dealing with general staff vacancies affecting operations.

Flooding after the Black Fire destroyed acequias in southern New Mexico. Stewards for those water systems compiled a list of disaster recovery financial aid options. A few funding opportunities can come from the Interstate Stream Commission, but stewards have said there’s been a lack of communication from the state.

An acequia in Mimbres, N.M. that its steward recently removed debris from. The state engineer’s green watering meter sits along its path. Pictured on Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Jonathan Martinez is the acequia lead at the commission. He said at a disaster recovery workshop last week that his understaffed team was already dealing with a lot of other work before being tasked to help with disaster assistance needs.

“We are overwhelmed,” he said. He added that the commission was trying to fill more positions.

Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho) said this legislation could help the Interstate Stream Commission carry over more knowledge during turnover. Another new requirement under the bill is staggered terms so that not all the commissioners leave at once.

“You’ve created a process to keep historical information at all times and not just a political move of appointments every six years,” she told Wirth.

Wirth said his legislation was spurred by a previous Interstate Stream Commission that was dysfunctional, insular and politicizing issues.

“The whole purpose of broadening this is, quite frankly, to bring in other voices, to bring in other perspectives and to get away from how narrow it was,” he said.

Rep. Marian Matthews (D-Albuquerque) asked if this might go in the opposite direction and just make the board an inside group. 

“Are there going to be fresh ideas or are there going to be innovative ideas coming?” she asked.


Ezzell said she can still see the appointees becoming political, despite the bill’s intention against that. The bill specifies that a certain number of members can’t be from the same congressional districts or state engineer water rights districts. There are also limits on people being from the same irrigation or conservancy districts or sections.

It also lays out that there can’t be more than five commissioners from the same political party. That could cause issues, according to the legislative fiscal impact report. 

“By calling out political affiliation, this bill will unnecessarily politicize water management decisions,” the report reads.

Wirth said with the support of the agencies and officials directly involved in recommending Interstate Stream Commission candidates to the governor, he’s hopeful that this legislation will work out.

“The fact that we’ve come up with a bill here that both the state engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission support leads me to believe that we’ve found a balance,” he said, “that they feel like they can get those candidates.”

The proposed qualifications

The governor appoints eight members of the Interstate Stream Commission. The ninth is the state engineer. Senate Bill 58 would require that the eight appointed commissioners meet these standards:

  • Four members from irrigation or conservancy districts or sections
  • One member from an acequia or community ditch
  • One member from of a state drinking water utility that provides at least 500 acre-feet of water annually for domestic use
  • One member from the Water Resources Research Institute OR who’s a civil or environmental engineering faculty member at UNM or NMSU
  • One hydrogeologist with expertise in state ground water resources who is also a faculty member of the N.M. Institute of Mining and Technology OR is a professional engineer with a New Mexico consulting engineering practice in water resources or water utility engineering

Out of the eight appointed commissioners, at least two members must be from a tribal nation and Pueblo.

All of the commissioners must also meet these qualifications:

  • No less than 10 years experience with state water resources
  • No more than two members can be from the same irrigation or conservancy district or section
  • No more than two members can be from the same Native nation, tribe or Pueblo
  • No more than three members can be from the same congressional district
  • Members have to reside in at least three different state engineer water rights districts

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.