New Mexico’s top water official returns to old job

March 18, 2019

State Engineer John D’Antonio has held the state’s top water management job for just a few days, but says his workload has already proven to be a daunting game of catch-up.

“There are just so many things going on. … There are so many high-profile issues and needs coming in,” he said Friday.

D’Antonio is no neophyte; he was the state engineer from 2003-11 under Gov. Bill Richardson. But he comes back to the job at a time when the state’s water problems are worsening and ideas to fix them are as controversial as they are plentiful. There were roughly 50 pieces of water-related legislation during the recently completed session of the state Legislature. Some had the potential to siphon funds from the agency’s budget and reshape areas of water policy.

Also problematic are several high-profile lawsuits, including a fight with Texas over water from the Rio Grande that is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. D’Antonio has said he hopes to reach a settlement in the case. But there’s plenty more, including a controversy over how to handle the Gila River diversion project and a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation deadline to provide comments on a drought contingency plan for the Colorado River Basin after states failed to reach an agreement this year.

More pressing, D’Antonio said, are needs to fill numerous staff vacancies and to secure a better long-term funding structure.

The Office of the State Engineer has a 26 percent vacancy rate, and D’Antonio said its capacity was decimated over the last eight years during the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, who left office Dec. 31.

“In just about every area, we need additional people to get up to speed and put plans in place so we can get some meaningful action [moving] forward,” he said. “We are really only as good as the people we have within our jobs.”

The agency is also staffed, he said, with too few young and middle management employees, a condition that could create a deficit in institutional knowledge when senior staff members retire.

D’Antonio returns to the Office of the State Engineer after nearly eight years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, state lawmakers praised his institutional knowledge. But after his appointment by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, he said he found the agency missing “a lot of the core competencies that we need related to our mission.”

Funding, he added, is one of the core concerns. For the past several years, the Office of the State Engineer has been funded in part through two trusts — the Irrigation Works Construction Fund and the Improvement to Rio Grande Fund, which established financial reserves for irrigation and for the protection of the health of the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

Those resources are dwindling and should never have been used for a state office, he said. He said he hopes to work with the Legislature over the next year to secure better funding through the state’s general fund.

There also are unsettled questions about water rights and improvements needed to water delivery systems. Currently, there are 11 open water rights adjudication cases with 7,000 defendants, he said.

“Unless you get those water rights settled, you don’t really have certainty” on how to cohesively manage water or plan for drought, D’Antonio said.

Also of concern, he said, are damaged and aging water systems, particularly in rural areas.

“There are a lot of dams that are in unsafe conditions that need to get funded and put an emergency plan in place,” he said.

He hopes by restaffing and securing funding over the coming months, the agency can begin to address these larger problems and create better plans for solving water issues throughout the state — now and into future decades.

“What waters do we have? What are the effects of warming temperature? There is a lot less water in our streams and rivers,” D’Antonio said. “How do we manage for those realities that are coming down the road? … You can only solve these problems by collaborating.”