AP NEWS

New Mexico’s new top water boss comes with experience

February 19, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A well-known water expert was chosen Tuesday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to lead the state engineer’s office as New Mexico navigates mounting pressure on its rivers and reservoirs and a legal dispute over management of one of the longest rivers in North America.

The governor said John D’Antonio is uniquely qualified to serve as the top water official in the arid state.

“I have no illusions about the challenges we face, from climate change to infrastructure needs, from lawsuits to staffing levels. I know John will meet these challenges head on,” Lujan Grisham said.

D’Antonio has the experience. He previously served as the state engineer from 2003 until 2011 when he left to take a post with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As head of the state engineer’s office, D’Antonio will oversee the accounting, appropriation and distribution of New Mexico’s water. That includes surface water and groundwater rights.

One of his top challenges will be working with the state attorney general and the Interstate Stream Commission as New Mexico prepares to make its case before the U.S. Supreme Court in its battle with Texas over the Rio Grande.

Texas wants New Mexico to stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the Rio Grande could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas.

New Mexico filed its own counterclaims last year. The state says Texas is violating the interstate compact governing the Rio Grande by allowing unrestricted pumping and other diversions on its side of the border and therefore aggravating demands on the river.

D’Antonio’s recent work as a liaison between a dozen federal agencies and the Western States Water Council will likely come in handy as some state officials expect the art of negotiation to play a key role in charting out a more modern agreement to govern the Rio Grande.

He also will have to be attentive to ongoing negotiations among Western states as they chart out how to combat the shrinking supply of Colorado River water. The system serves 40 million people, and it was imported Colorado River water that helped to keep the Rio Grande wet last summer.

During his previous tenure as state engineer, D’Antonio pushed for a water management system that aimed to keep junior water-rights holders from being cut off when supplies were low. His office also worked on Native American water-rights settlements and improved metering of the state’s water resources.

“His experience demonstrates his firm grasp on the heart of the matter: There is no resource in New Mexico as precious as our water,” Lujan Grisham said.

D’Antonio also will have to get the machinery of the office and the stream commission running well again, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. That means addressing staff vacancy rates that are in the double digits.

“The staffs are depleted, the budgets are down. So there are a lot of basic management tasks have to be carried out well before we start solving major water problems,” Fleck said.

A New Mexico native, D’Antonio earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of New Mexico in 1979. He also served on a state water issues task force from 1998 to 2011.