Plans for the Gila River diversion have changed. Again. At a meeting in Silver City on July 2, members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity voted to scale back development plans on the Gila River and one of its tributaries in southwestern New Mexico. The vote took place following completion of a preliminary draft environmental impact statement (PDEIS) about the group’s plans in the Cliff-Gila Valley, on the San Francisco River and in Virden, a town in Hidalgo County near the Arizona border. As proposed by the CAP Entity, the waters of the Gila River would be diverted, about three-and-a-half miles downstream from where the river runs out of the Gila Wilderness, via a 155-foot concrete weir wall.
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Last week, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the last of the bills from the 2019 legislative session, she line-item vetoed $1.698 million in New Mexico Unit funding for the Gila River diversion.
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.
The search for a new state engineer has been ongoing since the transition team convened in December, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has yet to say who will carry out her policy as the state’s top water boss. But Lujan Grisham’s Communications Director Tripp Stelnicki said Friday a candidate is in place and an announcement, forthcoming. “I would say that if it’s not the toughest, it’s absolutely one of the toughest positions across state government to fill simply because of the expertise needed and the level of nuance,” Stelnicki said. Candidates must be registered professional engineers and also have “an understanding of these deeply-entrenched issues that go back decades, centuries—that are even older than the state,” Stelnicki said. The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) administers New Mexico’s water resources, overseeing both surface and groundwater rights.
On Monday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced more executive appointments, including James Kenney as Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department. The next day, Kenney sat down with NM Political Report to talk about his vision for the agency. Though he hadn’t officially started the job yet, the secretary-designate wanted to set a tone of transparency, which he expects to be “ubiquitous” throughout state agencies under Lujan Grisham. Having a more transparent website and a social media presence, he said, will also help people “feel confident that their environment is healthy, that their community is robust, and … that NMED is out there doing its job, and that we’re proud to implement our mission.”
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NMED doesn’t exist within a vacuum, he said, and the department will work closely with other state agencies, tribes, communities and nonprofits. “I think being a cabinet secretary means that you use your ears more than your mouth,” Kenney said.