Water regulators making waves as water grab flows

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By Sherry Robinson

When three members of the Interstate Stream Commission resign abruptly, we need to pay attention.

When they point fingers at the State Engineer, we need to be worried. The two agencies are our water watchdogs.

The ISC oversees New Mexico’s participation in interstate stream compacts, protects and develops the state’s water and does water planning. The State Engineer regulates water rights and serves as ISC secretary.

The ISC has withered with an exodus of staffers blamed on both State Engineer Tom Blaine and the administration’s budget cuts. It’s an open secret in the water world that Blaine wants the traditionally independent ISC under his thumb.

Blaine meanwhile has opened the gate to the state’s biggest water grab.

The ISC in recent months has lost its director, Colorado River bureau chief, special projects bureau chief, general counsel, acting general counsel, and Middle Rio Grande Basin manager. It has just two senior staffers left.

When Blaine hired Deborah Dixon in early 2015, she was senior vice president at Bohannan Huston, a major engineering firm. “Ms. Dixon is an outstanding engineer who has valuable experience working in water projects in New Mexico,” Blaine said.

Blaine fired Dixon in June without a word to commissioners.

Earlier this month ISC Chairman Caleb Chandler of Clovis, former Chairman Jim Dunlap of Farmington, and Jim Wilcox of Carlsbad resigned.   

Dunlap, who’s been actively involved with water since 1966 when he launched the first rural water district in San Juan County, said in his resignation letter to the governor that he had “great concern for lack of direction from the State Engineer and adherence to New Mexico state statutes,” along with the loss of senior staff. 

Dunlap said Blaine refused to meet with the ISC board, and even the politically connected Chandler couldn’t get a meeting with the governor.

Meanwhile, Blaine has opened a hearing process for the most controversial request ever to land on the State Engineer’s desk. The Augustin Plains Ranch (a group of international investors) propose drilling 37 wells 2,000 feet deep and mining the aquifer to sell 54,000 acre-feet of water to the Albuquerque area via pipeline.

Former State Engineer Scott Verhines rejected the application, saying it was “vague, incomplete and speculative.” Blaine, however, viewed it as “incomplete” and told the company to make it complete or withdraw it. The company revised its application, and it’s now in the hearing pipeline.

When Blaine talks about this project, he talks out of both sides of his mouth.

Last year he told the San Augustin Water Coalition of residents that his office would ask if water was available for appropriation, and that the answer to that question would be yes. To objections that the proposal is speculative, he said,

“It will take a lot to satisfy me.”

Asked if he will consider impairment to other users, he said “it can’t cause impairment,” but then said a dropping water table isn’t impairment if water can be replaced from another source or by deepening a well.

“Water is a market-driven resource,” Blaine said.

He loves agriculture, he said, but it uses 70 percent of the state’s water. “If we take 10 percent of that water and use it for M&I (municipal and industrial), we could double the population of New Mexico.”

Discussing water basins, he tossed out the idea of a severance tax on water to help places that lose their water.

On Sept. 28, the State Engineer held a public meeting in Socorro. People packed into Macey Center at New Mexico Tech to ask questions, but Blaine, without notice, changed the meeting’s purpose to a discussion of process. He appeared to be trying to reassure residents. They were not reassured.

It’s unclear whether Blaine is a loose cannon or a focused weapon. Area water users are maintaining their guard.