New Mexico water chief to step down over lack of resources
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s top water official says a persistent lack of financial support to protect the state’s water resources is behind his decision to step down.
A well-known water expert with decades of experience, John D’Antonio submitted his resignation Thursday. His last day as state engineer will be Dec. 31, the Albuquerque Journal reported.
D’Antonio will be just the latest appointee to leave Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s cabinet, resulting in another leadership vacuum that won’t easily be filled. The first-term Democratic governor has seen a wave of retirements among department heads, from education to public safety.
D’Antonio’s departure comes as New Mexico remains locked in an ongoing legal battle with Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court over management of the Rio Grande and as the state grapples with a decades-long drought that has resulted in record low reservoir levels and river flows.
D’Antonio in a written statement said he is optimistic about his agency’s work to limit New Mexico’s liability in the Texas case, but he cited the lack of 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.
D’Antonio said his office was directed to submit a flat budget this year, despite strong growth in projected state revenues.
Sen. Liz Stefanics, chair of the legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee, said she agrees New Mexico should dedicate more money to water projects. She plans during the upcoming legislative session to request another $50 million for a water trust fund that helps pay for such projects.
“The issue around resources is absolutely true,” Stefanics told the Journal.
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. She also said the administration is grateful for D’Antonio’s many years of service and his work to protect and preserve New Mexico’s resources and waterways.
Rep. Susan Herrera, a member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said she and other legislators are talking about how to ensure state agencies that are suffering get the financial support they need.
“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.”
Environmental groups also have concerns, citing the effects of climate change on New Mexico’s water supplies and the need to ensure water quality for the future.
Lujan Grisham appointed D’Antonio to the state’s top water position in 2019. He also held the post under Richardson from 2003 to 2011.
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. The state engineer also is New Mexico’s representative on several interstate water compact commissions.
In 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 in central New Mexico. He also has been part of conversations about management of the Colorado River and recently testified before Congress that water managers need to balance scientific data and legal obligations as the basin enters a third decade of drought.