Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

State engineer job vacant amid New Mexico water challenges | Local News

The state is earnestly seeking a new state engineer to help lead water management in New Mexico amid supply shortages that will worsen in the coming years due to climate change.

John D’Antonio resigned from his position December 31 after publicly expressing frustration at the lack of manpower and funding to implement policies such as the 50-year water plan and dealing with New Mexico’s high-profile legal battle with Texas to deal with water rights.

His departure has left the governorship with the dual role of carrying out that crucial and complex task of ensuring the state’s next chief water official has the necessary resources — all while a La Niña weather pattern predicts another drier-than-normal winter suggesting the water could deplete supplies for the third straight year.

John Romero, who heads the water rights department, will step in while the state looks for someone to take the reins.

The acting chief of a regional irrigation district said it was important for the governor to appoint a tenured state engineer as soon as possible because it was too much for one person to juggle that job with another.

“A job like the state engineer’s office is hard to do when it’s just that job, so anyone trying to do two jobs is going to face that,” said Jason Casuga, acting CEO and chief engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District .

Romero will consult with the governor’s new water adviser, Mike Hamman, the former CEO of the conservation district.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed confidence that they would find a capable replacement.

“We want to fill the position and are optimistic about doing so after conducting a thorough search to find the most qualified and passionate individual for the position,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email.

The state engineer undertakes a complex set of duties, including water rights, litigation, water planning, engineering, environmental science, and administrative duties.

“It’s a steep learning curve,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission.

The state engineer has other responsibilities, such as representing New Mexico on various boards, Schmidt-Petersen said. For example, D’Antonio was a member of the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which helps determine water shipments to New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas.

“This person fills several different roles even beyond the agency piece,” he said. “It’s really difficult to find people who really have that kind of experience, especially in academia or in the private sphere.”

Casuga agreed that state engineer is a wide-ranging job that requires diverse skills.

“Whoever gets this job has a very, very difficult job to do, but one that must be done nonetheless,” Casuga said. “It’s important, but also part of the challenge, to find the right person with a broad enough background.”

When D’Antonio announced his retirement in November, he told The New Mexican in an email that he had taken the agency as far as he could with the current staffing and asked for three years of additional staff and funding to to protect the state’s water supplies.

But this year he was told to present a blanket budget for 2023, he wrote.

D’Antonio also complained that lawmakers had a “blatant non-response” to funding the 50-year water plan.

In October, D’Antonio told the Legislature’s Interim Committee on Water and Natural Resources that he had 67 fewer employees than he had as state engineer under former Gov. Bill Richardson.

Sackett countered that the state engineer had received one

17 percent growth in funding since Lujan Grisham took office.

The governor is also proposing to add 15 employees to the agency using $2 million in general fund money, Sackett wrote. These additional staff will help the agency address critical water issues — drought, climate change, dam safety and acequias — and implement the 50-year water plan, she added.

Casuga said the state engineer is involved in decisions and policies that affect irrigation, from deciding how many new wells to install to how much river water should be piped downriver to Texas instead of to the to be given to farmers.

This requires in-depth knowledge to manage the thinning water supply, but also resources to implement the plans effectively, Casuga said.

“To do the job properly, there have to be resources there,” Casuga said. “We would greatly appreciate it if the State Engineering Office had the resources it needs to carry out the work.”

Schmidt-Petersen said whoever takes the job will struggle with a warmer, drier climate that will reduce river flows and groundwater supplies.

“The new state engineer will really struggle with that,” he said.

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