ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Three members of a powerful New Mexico commission charged with protecting, conserving and developing water resources across the arid state have resigned, the result of what critics describe as a simmering conflict with the state’s top water regulator.
The departures mark the latest turmoil for the Interstate Stream Commission, which has been accused in recent years of violating state transparency laws over the development of plans for managing the state’s share of the Gila River. Now, in just the last five months, the commission’s director, its legal counsel and other key staffers have left.
Chairman Caleb Chandler and fellow Commissioners James Wilcox and Jim Dunlap submitted their resignations to Gov. Susana Martinez earlier this week. Chandler and Wilcox offered no details in their brief emails to the governor, but Dunlap expressed great concern for what he called the lack of direction from State Engineer Tom Blaine and adherence to state statutes.
Dunlap on Friday accused Blaine of overstepping his authority. The commissioners and their attorneys attempted to meet with Blaine to review statutes that detail the duties and responsibilities of the two separate entities, but Dunlap said Blaine refused, prompting a stalemate.
“The longer he was in there, the more it became clear that it was going to be just some kind of a program in which everything had to flow through him. That’s not the way the statutes are written,” Dunlap said in a phone interview. “The state engineer is more of a regulator of the state water, and we’re the ones who are supposed to protect and conserve and follow the compacts. We were not able to do that with this kind of administration going on.”
Melissa Dosher-Smith, a spokeswoman for the state engineer, said Friday that Blaine is “well aware of the statutory authorities and responsibilities” of the two offices and takes care to respect those. She also said Blaine and Chandler had been working to set up a meeting and that the state engineer remains committed to working with the commissioners.
Blaine was appointed to the post by Martinez in 2014. He previously worked as the director of the Environmental Health Division within the New Mexico Environment Department.
The governor’s office did not respond to questions regarding Martinez’s plans to fill the vacancies. Without a quorum, the commission is unable to take any official action.
The governor appoints the state engineer as well as the members of the Interstate Stream Commission, who serve either four- or six-year terms. The state engineer is the ninth member of the commission and serves as secretary.
Aside from coordinating regional and statewide water planning, the commission is responsible for ensuring that New Mexico meets the requirements of interstate river compacts, deals with water policy and management and develops water supply projects. The state engineer’s office administers water rights throughout the state.
Dunlap, who has been involved in New Mexico water policy for five decades, said having a weak commission would not be in the best interest of New Mexico. “We have to have counterbalances in all parts of the government,” he said.
Some critics say the situation began to erode after the commission raised concerns about a permit request from a commercial venture that calls for piping billions of gallons of water from rural western New Mexico to more populated communities.
The first application filed by Augustin Plains Ranch was rejected in 2012 by then-State Engineer Scott Verhines, another Martinez appointee, after he determined the proposal was speculative and that its effects could not be reasonably evaluated. It was one of the most contested filings in the history of the state engineer’s office.
The company resurrected its application. Blaine last year cleared the way for a hearing process that is expected to continue through 2018.