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New Mexico water boss: ‘We need to protect our water’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s top water official said Wednesday he will team with the attorney general as a legal fight simmers with Texas and the U.S. government over management of the Rio Grande.

State Engineer John D’Antonio spoke during a confirmation hearing before a key legislative committee, saying he met this week with state Attorney General Hector Balderas as lawyers prepare to brief a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

D’Antonio told lawmakers the fight over the river is complicated but New Mexico has strong technical arguments and needs to be aggressive in making its claims.

“I do hold some optimistic views on a settlement if we can get there,” he said, cautioning lawmakers that the state is still preparing to line up technical experts and depositions that will help make its case.

“We need to protect our water,” he said.

Texas wants New Mexico to stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the Rio Grande could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas.

New Mexico filed its own counterclaims last year. The state says Texas is violating the interstate compact governing the Rio Grande by allowing unrestricted pumping and other diversions on its side of the border and therefore aggravating demands on the river.

The fight has been ongoing for years, but officials in both states are facing mounting pressures because of persistent drought and meager snowpack in the Colorado mountains where the river begins. Millions of people in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico depend on the river for drinking water and to irrigate pecan orchards, chile and onion fields and other crops.

Flows were dismal last year, forcing federal water managers to work with utilities and others to keep the river from drying up in the stretch that runs through New Mexico’s largest city. It’s not uncommon for parts of the river to go dry south of Albuquerque depending on the time of year.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, said it’s crucial to have someone at the helm of the state engineer’s office who understands New Mexico’s water history and can provide continuity in terms of the state’s policy direction.

Some senators joked that they would like D’Antonio’s appointment to run through the next 30 years given his experience.

A native New Mexican, D’Antonio started his water career with the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s. He previously served as state engineer from 2003 until 2011 when he left to take another post with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year named D’Antonio as her pick to lead the state agency once again. The full Senate confirmed his appointment unanimously Wednesday afternoon.

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