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.
Fourteen years after Congress authorized New Mexico to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona—and four years after a state commission voted to build a diversion on the Gila River—there’s little to show for the project, other than continued confusion and about $17 million in spent money. “The process is going to end at some point,” said Norman Gaume, an opponent of the project and a former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). “It’s a question of how much more money will they waste?”
At an ISC meeting on Thursday, the state approved an additional $110,000 for the engineering firm Stantec, as well as an amendment that would allow the quasi-governmental organization in charge of the project to someday spend money slated for the diversion on other water projects. But, noted Gaume, each of the 15 members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity will need their governing boards to approve it, too. In practical terms, he said, the change means little: the joint powers agreement says the state can only spend money on the diversion.
Last winter, snows didn’t come to the mountains, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande suffered from drought. In April, the river—New Mexico’s largest—was already drying south of Socorro. And over the summer, reservoir levels plummeted. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Texas, New Mexico and the U.S. government over the waters of the Rio Grande marches onward. At a meeting at the end of August, the special master assigned to the case by the Supreme Court set some new deadlines: The discovery period will close in the summer of 2020 and the case will go to trial no later than that fall.
Anyone who is paying attention to the Rio Grande’s drying riverbed and dropping reservoirs or is worried about declining groundwater levels probably has something to say about how the state might handle current—and coming—challenges. And they currently have their chance. The public comment period for New Mexico’s draft water plan ends next week. And while top state officials wouldn’t speak about the plan, New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates were eager to share their thoughts about water, drought and water planning in the state. The draft plan released earlier this year by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission examines statewide water issues through the lens of 16 regional water plans the ISC developed with input from local governments, nonprofits and stakeholders.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the start of the scoping period for environmental analysis of the Gila River diversion in southwestern New Mexico. In its Federal Register notice Tuesday, Reclamation announced it will work with its co-lead, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), to solicit concerns from landowners who might be affected by the project. The agencies also seek public comment to help identify potential issues and alternatives that should be considered within the environmental impact statement, or EIS. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies must study the environmental, economic, archaeological and cultural impacts of a project, and consider various alternatives to the project. As Reclamation notes on the EIS website, “commenting is not a form of ‘voting’ on an alternative.” In other words, comments should not focus on support or opposition for a project, but provide specific, detailed information about the effects of the project and issues the agencies should consider analyzing within the EIS.
By a tight vote Tuesday morning, the Senate Conservation Committee passed a water bill—one that represents the latest attempt to control spending on a controversial diversion on the Gila River. Introduced by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Senate Bill 72, would channel federal money earmarked for the diversion toward other water projects in southwestern New Mexico. It would appropriate $50 million toward fully implementing a regional water project in Grant County, other shovel-ready water projects in the area, a groundwater study of the Mimbres Basin aquifer and water planning for the City of Deming. Morales told NM Political Report that he sees passage of the bill as a way to move tens of millions of dollars in federal money in a “responsible way.”
The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted in 2014 to build the diversion, ten years after Congress authorized the state to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona. Already, New Mexico has spent more than $13 million of its federal subsidy on studies, engineering plans, and attorneys fees, although the state and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity still lack a firm plan or location for the diversion.
At the end of last year, a state judge chipped away at a company’s plans to reopen a long-abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro. On Dec. 28, New Mexico Third Judicial District Court Judge James J. Wechsler found that most of the water rights claimed by the company are not valid. New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) planned to use groundwater rights that two men purchased after operations were abandoned at Copper Flat Mine in 1982. William Frost and Harris Gray, along with NMCC and its attorneys, tried to show that those rights were still valid, even though the water hadn’t been put to use over the past four decades—or even when the mine operated.
The big news in New Mexico this week involved the state’s proposed science standards. At a hearing on Monday not one of the hundreds of people who showed up spoke in support of the state’s plans to implement statewide science standards with inadequate information climate change and evolution. Afterwards, the secretary of the Public Education Department announced they would back off some of those changes. It remains to be seen what the state will actually propose now, and how that process will go. But it was heartening to see that newspapers, radio stations, and even TV reporters all showed up to cover science and education this week.
This week, three members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) resigned, including Chairman Caleb Chandler, Jim Wilcox and longtime board member, Jim Dunlap. Earlier this year, ISC Director Deborah Dixon also left. Her departure came shortly after a public disagreement with State Engineer Tom Blaine at an ISC meeting. Update: One of the ex-ISC members told NM Political Report why he quit. The ISC consists of nine commissioners appointed by the governor, including the director of the ISC and the State Engineer.