New Mexico just received an important wake-up call.
State Engineer John D’Antonio has announced he will retire effective Dec. 31 from his position as New Mexico’s top water official. The reasoning behind his departure should concern all who care about the state’s most precious resource.
D’Antonio says his office lacks the necessary funding and staffing to perform the work of the Office of the State Engineer.
He should know. D’Antonio served as state engineer from 2003-11 under then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
With a staff of 312, he was able to get his work done. Today, there are some 69 fewer positions in the office while demands are increasing.
The Office of the State Engineer is being asked to put together a 50-year water plan and manage high-profile lawsuits, including one before the U.S. Supreme Court pitting Texas against New Mexico. That’s on top of dealing with scarcity of water because of lingering drought and warmer temperatures and doing the day-to-day work of the office, whether protecting senior water rights or dealing with questions from the public.
Perhaps the last straw came for D’Antonio came when the agency was asked to submit a flat budget for the 2022 legislative session — this, despite $1.4 billion in “new” money for the next fiscal year.
It’s not as if D’Antonio had not been asking for increased funding. Ignored once again, retirement must have looked attractive.
Like so many state agencies, the Office of the State Engineer had its staffing cut precipitously under former Gov. Susana Martinez. Replenishing staff during a labor shortage and pandemic was never going to be easy, but without hefty budget increases, it’s likely impossible. A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham administration did point out the office’s budget has increased 17 percent since the governor took over. Obviously, that’s not adequate, at least not in the eyes of an expert.
When someone with the respect and experience of D’Antonio says he doesn’t have the money or the people to do the work correctly, it’s essential to listen. Even given the necessity of balancing competing interests in a state with many needs, protecting water and allocating water rights must be a top priority.
In 2022, the Legislature needs to provide enough funding to rebuild the office’s staff, complete the 50-year water plan and replenish the Water Trust Fund.
That constitutionally protected permanent fund for the state of New Mexico, created in 2006, distributes some $4 million each year to the state’s Water Trust Board for water infrastructure projects. Without additional capital, the Water Trust Fund could run dry in the next 20 years, according to the State Investment Council.
At a recent Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting last month, D’Antonio told legislators the water plan is in Phase 3, with the agency partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete the work.
Committee chairwoman State Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, said her group has endorsed some $12 million in spending to staff the office fully. She also plans to introduce legislation to replenish the Water Trust Fund with at least $50 million.
With D’Antonio leaving, the governor now must pay attention to finding an able and skilled replacement — someone who knows water issues but who also can recruit, hire and supervise while managing competing priorities.
D’Antonio’s resignation is a warning that all is not well at the Office of the State Engineer. Ignore it, and New Mexico will pay a price.