A legislative panel recently recommended strengthening the powers of the state engineer to regulate domestic water wells in New Mexico areas facing potential water problems.

The interim Water and Natural Resources Committee also proposed tapping nearly $90 million in Native American gambling payments to finance water projects across the state.

Under a bill, the committee will recommend to the full legislature in January, the state engineer's office could deny new domestic-use water wells, limit the amount of water those wells could produce and require meters to measure usage of new wells. Currently, the state engineer must grant permits for new domestic-use wells, which are those for household use and irrigation of up to an acre of land.

The legislation would allow the well restrictions in areas, such as the Pecos River basin, where increased water use could cause New Mexico to violate terms of an interstate compact; or where the rate of depletion from an aquifer is greater than its recharge, such as the Estancia basin.

According to the Associated Press, D.L. Sanders, general counsel in the state engineer's office, said the legislation will help ensure a water supply in the future so people can have some confidence that when they invest in a home or business, its value will not be undermined by water shortages.

To help finance water projects, the committee proposed using monies paid to the state by Native American tribes to settle a gambling lawsuit. A New Mexico senator suggested the money could be placed in the water trust fund created earlier this year by the legislature. Earnings from the fund can be spent on water projects approved by lawmakers.