The state is searching in earnest for a new state engineer to help lead New Mexico’s water management amid the supply shortages expected to worsen in the coming years because of climate change.
John D’Antonio retired from the position Dec. 31 after publicly voicing frustration over lack of staffing and funding to carry out directives such as the 50-year water plan and to deal with New Mexico’s high-stakes legal battle with Texas over water rights.
His departure has left the Governor’s Office with the twofold task of filling this crucial and complex job and ensuring the state’s next top water official has the necessary resources — all while a La Niña weather pattern portends another drier-than-normal winter that could deplete water supply for the third year in a row.
John Romero, who heads the Water Rights Division, will fill in while the state looks for someone to take the reins.
The acting head of a regional irrigation district said it’s important for the governor to appoint a permanent state engineer as soon as possible because it’s 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 anybody trying to do two jobs is going to be up against it,” said Jason Casuga, acting CEO and chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
Romero will consult with the governor’s new water adviser, Mike Hamman, the conservancy district’s former CEO.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed confidence they would find an able replacement.
“We are looking to fill the position and are optimistic about doing so after conducting a thorough search for the most qualified and passionate person for the job,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email.
The state engineer handles a complex array of tasks, including water rights, legal proceedings, water planning, engineering, environmental science and administrative duties.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Interstate Stream Commission director.
The state engineer must wear other hats, such as representing New Mexico on various boards, Schmidt-Petersen said. For instance, D’Antonio was on the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which helps determine water deliveries to New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
“That individual serves in multiple different roles, even beyond the agency piece,” he said. “It’s really hard to find people, particularly from a university setting or a private setting, that really have those types of experiences.”
Casuga agreed the state engineer is a wide-ranging job that requires diverse skills.
“Whoever gets that job has a very, very difficult job to do but nonetheless one that has to be done,” Casuga said. “Finding the right individual with a broad enough background is important but also part of the challenge.”
When D’Antonio announced his resignation in November, he told The New Mexican in an email he had taken the agency as far as he could with the current staffing and, that for three years, he had requested additional staffing and funds to protect the state’s water resources.
Yet this year, he was told to submit a flat budget for 2023, he wrote.
D’Antonio also complained there had been a “glaring non-response” from the Legislature on funding the 50-year water plan.
In October, D’Antonio told the Legislature’s interim Water and Natural Resources Committee he had 67 fewer staffers than when he was state engineer under former Gov. Bill Richardson.
Sackett countered that the state engineer has received a
17 percent funding increase since Lujan Grisham took office.
The governor also is proposing to add 15 staffers to the agency using $2 million in general fund money, Sackett wrote. These additional employees 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 determining how many new wells should be installed to how much river water should be sent downstream to Texas rather than dispensed to farmers.
This requires keen knowledge to manage the thinner water supply but also resources to carry out the plans effectively, Casuga said.
“To do the job right, there needs to be resources there,” Casuga said. “We absolutely would love for the State Engineer’s Office to have the funding it needs to do the job.”
Schmidt-Petersen said whoever steps into the job will contend with a warmer, drier climate reducing river flows and groundwater supply.
“That really is what the new state engineer is going to be wrestling with,” he said.