New Mexico’s top water official, state engineer John D’Antonio, announced Tuesday he is stepping down to take a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Some members of the state’s water community praised D’Antonio for his work on a wave of Indian water rights settlements and a deal over management of scarce water on the Pecos River. But he also had detractors who say he did not do enough to protect the water rights of the state’s farmers.
D’Antonio, a Republican, led the Environment Department under Gov. Gary Johnson before being named to his current job in 2003 under the Democratic administration of Gov. Bill Richardson.
Gov. Susana Martinez asked D’Antonio to stay on an interim basis when she took office Jan. 1. The Martinez administration then in July launched a very public search for a permanent state engineer. At the time, the administration said D’Antonio was being encouraged to apply for the job.
D’Antonio could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A statement issued by his office noted he had been given “no commitment on his job tenure” during the nine months he has remained on the job.
D’Antonio’s salary as state engineer is $125,000 annually. His new job at the Corps, which he will start after stepping down from his state job in 30 days, has a salary range of $113,700 to $147,850, according to an agency spokeswoman.
As state engineer, D’Antonio oversees New Mexico’s cumbersome water rights administration system, which a former colleague called a no-win job.
“Whenever something happens in water, there are distinct winners and losers,” said Bill Hume, who served as Richardson’s top water policy adviser. “The winners forget quickly. The losers never forget.”
D’Antonio oversaw final settlement of a long-standing dispute over allocation of water on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. Because of a shortage of water and litigation with Texas, the state of New Mexico bought out water rights holders and retired irrigation land to save water.
Steve Hernandez, a water lawyer who represented farmers on the Pecos, criticized the deal, saying the engineer’s office was unwilling to defend the water rights of longtime Carlsbad area farmers, who “are continuing to have their rights just whittled away.”
John Kelly, a member of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board, defended D’Antonio’s tenure in helping mediate among competing water interests.
“I think he did a hell of a job in a very demanding position,” Kelly said. “He did a good job of putting New Mexico water interests in front of special water interests.”
D’Antonio also won praise from the Navajo Nation for working out final details of a water rights deal in northwest New Mexico.
“He was willing to stand up for the settlement when other people were criticizing it and it wasn’t a popular thing to do,” said Stanley Pollack, the Navajo Nation’s lead negotiator.
But some San Juan River farmers argue that D’Antonio gave too much water to the Navajo Nation.
“It’s a bad settlement for San Juan County,” said Mike Sullivan of the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association.
— This article appeared on page C01 of the Albuquerque Journal