Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

New Mexico lawmakers pushed for water to be a priority

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – In the face of a legal battle over the administration of the Rio Grande in the U.S. Supreme Court and more hot and dry weather in the weather forecast, the New Mexico chief water officer said Wednesday that lawmakers must raise enough funds to keep one of the strongest of New Mexico to protect precious goods.

State Engineer John D’Antonio told members of a major legislative body that the State Engineer’s office is lacking in resources and lacking dozens of staff.

He said the shortfall equates to 140,000 manpower hours lost annually at a time the agency is processing nearly 90,000 water rights transactions and engaging in negotiations ranging from settlements with indigenous nations to water sharing agreements with other western states.

To make matters worse, there is climate change and the potential for more evaporation and more forest fires, he said.

“The impact is really threatening the communities, the irrigation systems, the businesses that depend on New Mexico’s water,” D’Antonio told members of the Legislative Finance Committee.

D’Antonio recently cited the lack of resources as the reason for his decision to step down next month. He previously served as a state engineer during the administration of former Governor Bill Richardson and was appointed to the office by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2019.

New Mexico has struggled with drought for the past 20 years, with rivers making record lows this year. This also includes the Rio Grande. In the pending case before the Supreme Court, Texas argues that pumping groundwater in southern New Mexico is reducing the flow of the river and restricting the amount of water that flows across the border. New Mexico argues that it was shorted to its portion of the river.

D’Antonio said Wednesday that the government had directed his office to come up with a flat-rate budget for the next fiscal year in hopes that federal recovery funds could fill some of the loopholes. He told lawmakers that New Mexico’s water problems are not going away and that long-term funding solutions rather than one-time injections of cash will be needed if the state hopes to protect its interests.

“We have to level this playing field so that we can be effective. Water is a technical problem. It’s a legal issue, ”he said, explaining that permanent funding would help relieve the agency of some of the political burdens that come with changes in governor’s office.

Office of the State Engineer officials also pointed to new obligations arising from New Mexico’s move to legalize recreational marijuana and encourage the expansion of the cannabis industry. Along with this comes the need for water managers to review applications for water rights and ensure that the state’s finite sources are protected.

Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Director of the Interstate Stream Commission, also informed the committee about the severity of the ongoing drought. He said New Mexico is likely experiencing more drought and variability than any other state in the west.

“It is important to recognize this in advance. Not only are we very dry; we’re drier than anyone else and even the state of Nevada, ”he said. “We have less surface water than the state of Nevada.”

Schmidt-Petersen said the 50-year plan that the Stream Commission and D’Antonio’s office have been working on aims to develop recommendations that will help decision-making in the future as supplies shrink.

He pointed out a graph that showed a bullseye over the northwestern part of the state, where temperatures are expected to rise the most. He said this will have cascading effects.

“They have the same amount of precipitation, but more water is evaporated or released into the air. They have an impact on your entire landscape, ”he said.

When asked if this dry year would be considered one of New Mexico’s wetter years in five decades, D’Antonio said he hoped it wouldn’t, but noted that the trends were toward warmer temperatures and more variable rainfall indicate.

Existing laws in New Mexico that allow active real-time management of water rights will be vital along with improving water storage infrastructure, D’Antonio said.

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