High court sides with state engineer

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Optic Staff and Wire

SANTA FE — The New Mexico Supreme Court has overturned a lower court ruling that limited the ability of the state’s top water official to manage water rights in times of severe drought.

The case centers on a program that was intended to speed up the determination of industry, agricultural and municipal water entitlements. The Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that the Office of the State Engineer had overstepped its legal authority by adopting the program.

The Supreme Court overturned that ruling Thursday, saying the state Legislature had delegated authority to the state engineer to put in place the water administration regulations.

The high court also ruled that the regulations are not unconstitutional when it comes to due process, vagueness or the separation of powers, as critics had argued.

“We reverse both the Court of Appeals and the district court by holding that (Active Water Resource Management) does not violate constitutional separation of powers limitations,” the Supreme Court said in its opinion. “On an issue not reached by the Court of Appeals, we reverse the District Court by holding that AWRM does not violate due process. Finally, addressing an issue not reached by either court below, we hold that AWRM is not unconstitutionally vague.”

The ruling stems from a 2005 lawsuit filed by Tristate, New Mexico Mining Association and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District against the state engineer over 2003 legislation directing the state engineer to create priority administration rules.

“Today’s ruling upholds the water management tools which are exactly what New Mexico needs to navigate the difficult drought conditions burdening our state,” State Engineer Scott Verhines said in a news release. “The last twenty-four months have been the hottest and driest in recorded state history. Active Water Resource Management gives New Mexico the ability to respond to our variable water supply.”

DL Sanders, chief counsel for the Office of the State Engineer said Active Water Resource Management rules that were written in 2004 are now in effect.