STATE ENGINEER REPLACED Day after Verhines speaks in Bloomfield about Navajo Water Rights Settlement, his replacement is announced

By Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
Updated:   11/21/2014 07:42:41 PM MST0 comments

FARMINGTON — A day after State Engineer Scott Verhines came to Bloomfield to answer questions about the Navajo Water Rights Settlement, Gov. Susana Martinez announced that he is being replaced Friday.

“I really am shocked. He gave no hint of that,” said Bob Oxford, a retired state water engineer who sat on a panel at the question-and-answer forum Thursday night at Bloomfield High School. The event attracted approximately 70 people.

Verhines was appointed in 2011 and will be replaced by Tom Blaine on Dec. 1, according to a press release. Blaine is the director of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Environmental Health Division. He has more than 28 years of engineering experience.

A call placed to Verhines’ cell phone Friday evening was not returned by deadline.

Lela Hunt, spokeswoman for Verhines’ office, said she does not know why Martinez is replacing him.

Oxford described Thursday’s forum as a “dog and pony show” that included the same lawyers and staff members that many in the audience already had heard defend the water rights settlement. A few people in auditorium made quiet but snide remarks about the lawyers when they stood to speak.

At the door to the auditorium, Bloomfield resident Linda Corwin was distributing fliers that listed several questions about the settlement. She encouraged those who were entering to ask them of Verhines.

Corwin was one of a few San Juan County residents who picketed Martinez’s appearance in the county on Aug. 29. She was protesting the water rights settlement, she said, and she told Martinez that Verhines needed to visit the county to explain the settlement.

Judge James Wechsler approved the water rights settlement on Aug. 19 in Aztec District Court. His decision allows the Navajo Nation to take more than 600,000 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River each year.

In mid May, three legislators and an official with an agency that represents San Juan River irrigation ditches filed a lawsuit, asking the state Supreme Court to cancel the settlement.

The lawsuit states that the settlement is void because, just before leaving office in December 2010, then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed the agreement without submitting it first to the state Legislature, as is required in the state’s Constitution.

Verhines responded by saying that the New Mexico Court of Appeals should handle the matter, but officials say that could take years.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, asked the first question, one that dealt with the processing time for water rights transfers by Verhines’ office. One transfer, in the Aztec district office, has taken approximately three years, according to the question Bandy asked.

“It seems like we could be more efficient,” the state lawmaker said.

Verhines said his office has a backlog of approximately 1,500 water rights transfers. His staff has to be efficient, he said, but it also has to make good decisions. Many of the transfers are driven by oil and gas development, and drought, he said.

“Those aren’t excuses. I don’t like being an agency that’s keeping businesses from doing business,” he said.

He also indicated the Legislature shares the blame. His office, he said, doesn’t control its own budget.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.

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