SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Across New Mexico, the fair distribution and supply of water depends on water rights holders staying within their allotted use. But state law only gives the Office of the State Engineer limited power to enforce water use permits. Now, lawmakers are hoping to increase enforcement powers.

Tuesday, legislators considered Senate Bill 380, sponsored by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Abq.). The bill would let the Office of the State Engineer inspect water permit holders and impose more significant penalties for those who use too much water.

Currently, state law allows the Office of the State Engineer to fine permit holders $100 (reportedly set in 1907) for violating rules set by the State Engineer. The proposed bill would boost that to a max of $2,000 per day. And the bill would give the Office of the State Engineer more power to check water use records to ensure compliance.

Nat Chakeres, the general counsel at the Office of the State Engineer, explained to the Senate Conservation Committee that other government entities already have similar enforcement powers. For example, the state’s Environment Department has similar powers over environmental pollution. So, Chakeres added, the point of the bill isn’t simply to increase the government authority, but rather to update the State Engineer’s powers.

But not all legislators thought the bill would add fairness to the issue of water use. Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Doña Ana) criticized the Office of the State Engineer, noting that a bill forcing permit holders to show their usage records isn’t fair because not all parts of the state have the same requirements for keeping water records.

“You want meter records because those of us in the Lower Rio Grande meter. The Middle Rio Grande doesn’t meter,” Cervantes argued. “It’s a game you all play in the State Engineer’s Office. You don’t enforce metering on anybody between Cochiti and Socorro. And all the water users in Bernalillo County and Belen, Los Lunas – the people we have to compete with in farming – they don’t have to meter. . . It’s not a fair game.”

Chakeres replied that “it’s not just in the Lower Rio Grande that people are subject to metering requirements.” And that “there are permits all over the state that require folks to meter their water use.”

Bill supporters argued that the bill would modernize the state’s ability to regulate water and properly enforce fair water use. They note that current fines aren’t enough to provide an incentive for water rights holders to follow the rules.

But some members of the public expressed concern about whom the bill would most impact. “Is this increase [in enforcement] going to cover those farmers that are out there just throwing water away on the side of the road?” Jason Quintana, the president of the Manzano Land Grant and the Manzano Water Association, asked the committee. On the other hand, “those that have small wells, are they going to be the subject of this? Those people [with small wells] are not the main violators,” Quintana said.

In the end, the Senate Conservation Committee voted to move the bill forward. But it still has to get through more committees, such as the Senate Judiciary Committee, before it’s even close to becoming law.