March 4, 2019

As NM’s water boss, D’Antonio is back on the job

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Laura Paskus

The Rio Grande in Albuquerque in early March

This week, John D’Antonio will take the helm at the Office of the State Engineer, the agency that oversees water rights and applications in New Mexico, for the second time.

D’Antonio served as State Engineer beginning in 2003, through the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, and for almost a year under Gov. Susana Martinez. After leaving the state position in 2011, D’Antonio returned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was named deputy district engineer for the agency’s Albuquerque district.

Asked why, at this stage in his career, he’d want to head the state agency again, especially given New Mexico’s water challenges, D’Antonio said he didn’t initially apply for the position. “But as I spoke to the transition team…and noting how much of a challenge we have as a state, I thought it was important to have someone coming back in that could pull a lot of things together,” he said. With a quiet laugh, the native New Mexican added, “And the governor was instrumental in recruiting me, so I decided I’d come back and serve New Mexico.”

As the state’s top water official, D’Antonio will face everything from climate change and drought, to interstate disputes over river waters, dropping groundwater levels and the adjudication of water rights—all with a flat budget and high staff vacancy rates.

Roughly a quarter of the staff positions are currently empty, and with the legislative session ongoing, D’Antonio has to think about the agency’s budget, as well as what bills are moving through the Roundhouse—that will benefit or detract from the agency. Currently, the agency is tracking about 50 bills related to water issues.  

D’Antonio is also coming back to the agency after eight years of near-neglect. During the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, water issues were simply not a priority.

“I don’t want to disparage anything that happened in the last administration, but if you’re going to solve water issues, as I’ve learned in the past, you need to work with customers, stakeholders and key partners,” he said. “You have to be communicative and inclusive.”

There’s also the looming threat of Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande.

D’Antonio said it’s not unusual for downstream states to sue their upstream neighbors over perceptions that groundwater pumping is affecting water deliveries. He also thinks there might be opportunities to perhaps settle, and certainly to rebuild relationships.

“In New Mexico, we were very careful in how we administered our water rights in the lower Rio Grande,” he said. “I’ve read through the cross-claims that the New Mexico Attorney General has filed, and I think they’re very strong.”

John D’Antonio

Right now, he said, the first step is that the State Engineer, the Attorney General and the governor stand side-by-side: “You don’t want there to be a wedge driven between the technical and the legal experts in your state,” he said. “It’s possible that’s what happened under the previous administration.”

Addressing New Mexico’s water future means balancing the needs of cities and farmers and protecting traditional uses of water by tribes and acequias. And given the impacts of climate change, it also means New Mexico will need to be “creative,” D’Antonio said.

“There are tremendous opportunities with oil and gas, and produced water,” he said. “If New Mexico is going to continue to play a role in oil and gas”—he noted the boom in the Permian Basin—”there is a lot of water that can be recycled, reused, essentially cleaned up to be used for other purposes.”

In cooperation with the New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the Office of the State Engineer would decide how that water could be used outside the oil and gas industry, and how it would be appropriated.

“There’s no end to the things we have to do, but it’s about getting organized, prioritizing and putting good water policy in place,” he said. And, transparency is key: “You can’t afford to do any of those things in a closed room.”

Finding solutions that ‘work for everybody involved’

Even before Election Day, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released an ambitious water plan. One of her priorities was ending work on the Gila River diversion project. As secretary of the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), the State Engineer plays an important role on the Gila.

D’Antonio recalled when Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) in 2004: “There was a whole lot of work done by then-senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, allowing New Mexico to get what they call an ‘exchange priority’ on the Gila River,” he said.

D’Antonio said it’s a “very complicated issue” and it’s important to “keep an open mind going forward.”

It’s definitely complicated.

AWSA is the legislation that allows New Mexico to take advantage of water rights negotiated in the 1960s, when Congress authorized the Central Arizona Project. For New Mexico’s support, it was promised 18,000 acre feet of water from the Gila River—if the state could find a downstream water user in Arizona willing to exchange water from the Gila or its tributary, the San Francisco, for Colorado River water.

For decades, New Mexico never found a partner. Then, in the early 21st century, Arizona again needed New Mexico’s senatorial support, this time in settling water rights claims with the Gila River Indian Community. In 2004, when Congress passed AWSA, it authorized New Mexico to pay an exchange fee for the Gila-San Francisco water, which would allow the Arizona tribe to buy Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project.

Still, the water wasn’t New Mexico’s to own outright, and the law lowered the annual allocation from 18,000 to 14,000 acre feet. In addition, the water could only be diverted after the needs of downstream water users were already met.

AWSA also gave the ISC ten years to decide whether to meet water demands in southwestern New Mexico through efficiency and conservation, or receive an additional $58 million and build a diversion on the Gila.

In 2014, the ISC voted in favor of a diversion, and New Mexico agreed to complete its plans by the end of 2019 to receive the full federal subsidy. Since then, however, the process has been plagued by problems. Currently, more than $17 million has been spent on studies, consultants and attorneys for a diversion structure that would divert just 7,000 acre feet of water annually.

“I know the governor has certain views on what to do there, and we’ll bring some additional discussions to the table to figure out what’s best for New Mexico,” D’Antonio said, adding. “We’re going to take another look at it, try to reduce the amount of money being spent on studying it, and try to come up with another solution that’s going to work for everybody involved.”

Building the bench

Water management requires being diligent about putting policy measures in place, and then continually working on the issues, D’Antonio explained. Both the Office of the State Engineer and the ISC have a lot of “very good and talented” staffers. But, he said, it’s also important to “build the bench” for the next generation of staff.

“A lot of people wind up retiring from these positions, and when they do, they take a whole lot of institutional knowledge,” he said. “We have a great opportunity now with the vacancies we have to start bringing people in from the great programs we have in our state”—including the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech—“and one of the things I’m going to be focused on is, ‘How do we start bringing in younger people?’”

He added, “We can get some good people with new ideas, that can learn off the ‘water buffalos’ that we have within state government that are going to have to exit out one of these days.”

One of D’Antonio’s top goals returning to the office is meeting with staff and making sure they feel valued and are treated fairly. “It’s bad for morale when you feel only a handful of people are running everything,” he said. “You need to be inclusive, empower your managers and trust your managers.”