New Mexico’s top water official should be a licensed engineer

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Legislation was introduced to eliminate the requirement that the highest state water official be a licensed professional engineer to allow appointment of non-engineers to this position. We are concerned that eliminating this requirement will lead to the appointment of unqualified people and politicize a position that should transcend politics.

There have been many attempts over the years to open the position of senior state water manager to anyone, regardless of qualifications, but these attempts have failed in the recognition that the qualifications and l he ethics of a professional engineer are essential to the fairness, efficiency and effective stewardship of our most precious resource.

We consider three reasons why the New Mexico water code requires that the position be filled by a licensed engineer; there are many others.

First, the State Engineer’s responsibilities include many technical components in areas such as hydrology and hydraulics, database management and mapping, and dam safety monitoring and stormwater management. For example, the Texas-New Mexico/Colorado lawsuit currently before the US Supreme Court is based on disagreement over technical and accounting issues regarding the hydrology of the lower Rio Grande. While there are many accomplished water professionals practicing in New Mexico, requiring the office to be staffed by an engineer ensures competence in these technical areas.

Second, opinion polls have shown that engineering is one of the most trusted and respected professions, second only to medical professions. The administration of water in the Southwest is increasingly controversial. Structured negotiation and decision-making is a much better strategy for resolving water-related disputes than through costly, time-consuming and uncertain court proceedings. However, negotiations require that trust and respect be accorded to all participants. The public respect earned by engineers is important for the collaborative resolution of water-related disputes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, engineers have earned their status through centuries of commitment to public service. The first canon of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ code of ethics is that engineers should “put the safety, health, and welfare of the public first.” We know of no other profession that requires this commitment. Codes of ethics for professions such as lawyers, doctors, or teachers state that their primary responsibility is to the client, patient, or student and make no mention of responsibility to the public.

Using a code of ethics to argue that a professional engineer is the best water steward seems like academic justification. But throughout their careers, licensed engineers must engage in ongoing professional development that includes training in ethical practice. The consequences of a violation of the code of ethics can lead to penalties that can go as far as the loss of the license. Public confidence in the engineering profession reflects its commitment to public service rather than to special interests.

There have been only 17 state engineers since 1907, three of whom were interim and served for a year or less. This stability is essential to maintaining equitable and consistent water management in times of drought and times of plenty. We believe that the analytical nature of the engineering profession combined with its strong commitment to public service makes it one of the professions least influenced by pressure from political and vested interests. Therefore, the position of senior water manager in the state should continue to be held by a licensed professional engineer.

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