NM's top water official to step down, citing understaffing - Albuquerque Journal

NM’s top water official to step down, citing understaffing

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, right, held a news conference to announce John D’Antonio as her pick to be the next State Engineer. The announcement was made at the Governor’s Office in Santa Fe in February 2019. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – State Engineer John D’Antonio, New Mexico’s top water official, submitted his resignation and will retire next month, citing a lack of financial support to protect the state’s water resources.

His departure comes as New Mexico faces litigation with Texas over Rio Grande water rights, record-low reservoirs and water scarcity exacerbated by drought and climate change.

In a written statement Thursday, D’Antonio said he is optimistic about his agency’s work to limit New Mexico’s liability in the Texas litigation.

But he cited a persistent lack of financial resources for the Office of the State Engineer and unfunded mandates as factors in his resignation. He expects several senior staff members who are eligible for retirement to announce departures, too.

“We’ve taken the agency as far as we can, given the current agency staffing level and funding resources,” D’Antonio said.

The agency, he said, has the equivalent of 67 fewer employees now than it did under then-Gov. Bill Richardson a decade ago, when D’Antonio served an earlier stint as State Engineer. But his office was still directed to submit a flat budget this year, he said, amid strong growth in projected state revenue.

The water agency, D’Antonio said, had been asking for “additional staff and funding to protect the state’s water resources” for nearly three years.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the governor has worked to boost funding for the state engineer since taking office in 2019.

Funding for the Office of the State Engineer has climbed about 17% since then, according to the Lujan Grisham administration.

D’Antonio, meanwhile, highlighted what he described as the “glaring nonresponse” from the Legislature on funding for the state’s 50-year water plan for the last three years and “expectations that it be completed regardless of funding limitations.”

The agency has instead turned to a funding partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with the plan.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, a Cerrillos Democrat and chair of the legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee, said she agrees New Mexico should dedicate more money to water projects.

She said she expects to propose in the Legislature’s next 30-day session that another $50 million be allocated to a water trust fund that helps pay for water projects.

“The issue around resources is absolutely true,” Stefanics said in an interview.

Rep. Susan Herrera, an Embudo Democrat and member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said she and other legislators are already talking about how to ensure state agencies that “are really suffering” get the financial support they need.

The push comes as the state may have plenty to spend. Its economists are projecting strong revenue growth for next budget year, and federal stimulus funds have poured into the state.

“If we’re going to have clean drinking water and wastewater in this state, we need to invest,” Herrera said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Lujan Grisham appointed D’Antonio to the state’s top water position in February 2019. His retirement goes into effect Dec. 31.

He also held the post under Richardson from 2003 to 2011.

Sackett, the Lujan Grisham spokeswoman, said the administration is grateful for D’Antonio’s “many years of service to the state and his work to protect and preserve New Mexico’s resources and waterways – we wish him all the best in his retirement.”

She added that Lujan Grisham “has worked and continues to work to remedy the previous administration’s underfunding and understaffing of state agencies and departments.”

The Office of the State Engineer oversees water rights, and the State Engineer serves as secretary of the Interstate Stream Commission, which manages interstate water compacts and long-term water planning.

D’Antonio’s departure will create a second vacancy on that panel. Commissioner Tanya Trujillo took a job as the U.S. Interior Department assistant secretary of water and science in January.

The state engineer is New Mexico’s representative on several interstate water compact commissions.

In July 2020, D’Antonio successfully persuaded the Rio Grande Compact commissioners from Colorado and Texas to approve an 11 billion gallon emergency release of water from El Vado Reservoir to boost river flows for farmers and fish in central New Mexico.

In a presentation to lawmakers last month, D’Antonio said the water office has continued “to get hit with unfunded mandates.”

“Not only are we having to actively manage our resources with a really limited staff, but we’ve also got to go in and defend our water against claims from the state of Texas,” he told the Water and Natural Resources Committee.

Texas and New Mexico are in litigation before the Supreme Court over groundwater disputes.

D’Antonio’s other roles include chair of the Water Trust Board, which administers local water infrastructure project funds, and chair of the governor’s drought task force.

He was the state’s Cabinet secretary for the Environment Department for a six-month stint in 2002, and he worked nearly 20 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

D’Antonio, who makes $158,000 a year as state engineer, said he expects to make an announcement in the coming weeks on his future plans to help solve water challenges in the West.

Inside the Office of the State Engineer, he said, “there remains a small nucleus of staff professionals who are over-worked and under-supported and deserve an experienced quality leader to take on the challenges facing NM’s critical water challenges. I wish that person the best.”

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