A bill that would appropriate $100 million to repair some of New Mexico’s most dangerous dams advanced Tuesday in the state Senate. The money would pay for only a fraction of what is needed to address all the structural issues of scores of dams across the state that pose safety risks, according to the state engineer. “With one breach, we could lose property, we could lose our animals and we could lose, most importantly, lives here in New Mexico,” said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, sponsor of Senate Bill 236. Lawmakers on the Senate Conservation Committee approved the measure 8-0 Tuesday. It now heads to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
State leaders looking for a way to address a litigated claim that New Mexico is not providing enough water to Texas under a decades-old compact want funding for a water conservation pilot program south of Elephant Butte. Though the plan remains vague, both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee are proposing to support it by allocating funding to the project in the 2021 fiscal year.
The plan would let water users in the southern part of the state figure out how and when to leave certain areas of their farms unplanted — or fallow — to conserve ground and surface water.
“It’s the start of a solution to the lack of water resources south of Elephant Butte,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who first announced the plan at a Journey Santa Fe event this month. “It’s critical that the solution comes from the farmers down there.” The Governor’s Office is proposing a $10 million allocation in next year’s budget for a year’s implementation of the pilot program. The LFC’s $30 million proposal takes a three-year approach to the plan, Wirth said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently appointed a new director and seven new members to the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). The body, which is tasked with overseeing interstate water agreements and water planning for the state, has a total of nine commissioners, including a director, a chairperson and the state engineer. The new commission members are Bidtak Becker, former executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources in Window Rock, Arizona; New Mexico Acequia Association executive director Paula Garcia, who also serves as chair of the Mora County Commission; Mike Hamman, chief engineer and CEO at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District; Aron Balok, superintendent of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District and secretary and treasurer of the New Mexico chapter of the National Water Resource Association; Gregory Carrasco,a farmer and rancher in Las Cruces who served with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association; hydrogeologist Stacy Timmons, who is program manager at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech in Socorro; and Tanya Trujillo, lower basin project director at the Colorado River Sustainability Campaign. The Governor’s office said the new members represent a diverse set of interests and backgrounds. Carrasco was appointed to bring “an important agricultural perspective to water issues,” according to a press release from the Governor’s Office.
It’s not just your imagination: Things really are greener around New Mexico this year. And the state Legislature’s interim Water and Natural Resources Committee heard the good news in an update from State Climatologist Dr. David DuBois. “We’ve done really well (for) this time of year,” DuBois told the committee. Not only has this water year, which begins on Oct. 1, been well above average, the temperatures have also been cooler than in the past few years, which also helps with the water situation.
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.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tapped John D’Antonio on Tuesday to serve as state engineer, appointing a water policy veteran to manage what is one of the most valuable and fought-over resources in New Mexico. D’Antonio was state engineer from 2003-11 and most recently worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He takes over his old post amid a high-stakes court case over the Rio Grande and as New Mexico faces the effects of climate change. “Our most precious resource has to be protected and managed in altogether new ways,” Lujan Grisham told reporters in announcing her pick. It is a big job, particularly for a governor who has already sought to make climate change a priority during her first months in office.