ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — With a legal battle over management of the Rio Grande before the U.S. Supreme Court and more hot and dry weather in the forecast, New Mexico’s top water official said Wednesday that lawmakers have to provide enough funding to protect one of New Mexico’s most precious commodities.
State Engineer John D’Antonio told members of a key legislative panel that the Office of the State Engineer is lacking resources and is short dozens of staff.
He said the shortfall equates to 140,000 lost staff hours per year at a time when the agency is processing nearly 90,000 water right transactions and is involved in negotiations that range from settlements with Indigenous nations to water-sharing contracts with other western states.
Complicating matters is the changing climate and the potential for more evaporation and more wildfires, he said.
“The impacts really threaten the communities, the irrigators, the businesses that depend on New Mexico’s water,” D'Antonio told members of the Legislative Finance Committee.
D’Antonio recently cited the lack of resources as a reason for his decision to step down from the post next month. He previously served as the state engineer during former Gov. Bill Richardson's administration and was appointed to the office in 2019 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
New Mexico has been grappling with drought for the past 20 years, with rivers seeing record low flows this year. That includes the Rio Grande. In the pending Supreme Court case, Texas argues that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is reducing the river's flow and cutting into how much water makes it across the border. New Mexico argues that it has been shorted on its share of the river.
D'Antonio said Wednesday that the administration directed his office to submit a flat budget for the next fiscal year, hoping that federal recovery funds could fill some of the gaps. He told lawmakers that New Mexico's water problems are not going away and that long-term funding solutions are needed rather that one-time cash infusions if the state hopes to protect its interests.
“We've got to level that playing field for us to be effective. Water is a technical issue. It's a legal issue,” he said, explaining that permanent funding would help to absolve the agency from some of the political pressures that happen with changes in the governor's office.
Officials with the Office of the State Engineer also pointed to new duties resulting from New Mexico's move to legalize recreational marijuana and encourage the expansion of the cannabis industry. Along with that comes the need for water managers to evaluate applications for water rights and ensure the state's limited sources are protected.
Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, also briefed the committee on the severity of the ongoing drought. He said New Mexico likely experiences more drought and variability than any other state in the West.
“It's important to recognize that up front. We're not just very dry; we're drier than everybody else and even the state of Nevada,” he said. “We have less surface water than the state of Nevada.”
Schmidt-Petersen said the 50-year plan that the stream commission and D'Antonio's office has been working on aims to develop recommendations that will help with decision making in the future as supplies shrink.
He pointed to a graphic that showed a bullseye over the northwestern part of the state where temperatures are expected to see the largest increases. He said this will have cascading effects.
“You have the same amount of precipitation but you have more water being evaporated or transpired into the air. You have impacts across your entire landscape,” he said.
When asked whether this dry year would be considered one of New Mexico's wetter years five decades from now, D'Antonio said he hoped that wouldn't be the case but noted that trends are pointing to warmer temperatures and more variable precipitation.
Existing New Mexico laws that allow for active management of water rights on a real-time basis will be key along with boosting infrastructure for water storage, D'Antonio said.