State Engineer John D’Antonio has resigned, leaving the job vacant on Jan. 1. With the governor just back from Glasgow, Scotland, with a renewed focus on combating climate change, we believe this vacancy provides an opportunity for our state to modernize water management.
Unfortunately, there is a major obstacle in our current state law that inhibits the governor from considering a deep bench of talented candidates for the state engineer position.
State law limits this position to professional engineers, greatly narrowing the pool of talented professionals in water management. This may have been sufficient in the early days of our state and before we understood the threats of climate change. Now we know our state is not just suffering from extended drought but faces long-term aridification, which means hotter temperatures and more evaporation, as well as less precipitation. We need a 21st century water manager who can help us navigate an uncertain future.
The job is not well known among everyday New Mexicans, although, along with the Interstate Stream Commission, the Office of the State Engineer has authority over the waters of New Mexico and its supervision, measurement, appropriation and distribution, requiring coordination among a vast array of stakeholders. There are multiple federal, state and tribal agencies, as well as water-rights holders, recreationists, conservationists and concerned citizens who all have some voice in the management of water.
Meeting the challenges of aridification will require a thorough rethinking of how the state manages its waters. Climate change has put us into a severe drought, which scientists tell us is just an indication of what is to come. We need to integrate water management to address water quality, providing water for healthy rivers, ensuring groundwater depletions are controlled, along with addressing major litigation, ongoing adjudications, water transfers and all of the other business of the office.
The skills required to manage this portfolio are many, including management, planning, law, economics, hydrology and, yes, engineering. It makes no sense to restrict this management position to those with an engineering degree. The good news is there exists a simple legislative “fix” to this problem, and with the upcoming legislative session around the corner, now is the time for our state to modernize the job qualifications. Several attempts have been made in the last 40 years to pass such legislation, but these previous attempts always died because of entrenched special interests who prefer the status quo. With this position vacant — and therefore the reform is not seen as a referendum on any particular state engineer — now is the moment to change course for our state’s future water management.
We request Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham add a bill on her “call” for the 2022 short session that revises NMSA §72-2-1 to include all other professions, such as scientists, hydrologists, water planners and attorneys. Let’s find the best person for the job, because it is indeed a challenging one.