State interests collide with dwindling water supply
Water drives the economy of southeastern New Mexico. It sustains alfalfa fields in Clovis, keeps cows alive on dairy farms in Roswell, and enables hydraulic fracturing in Carlsbad and Hobbs. Here, where water is pumped or diverted is determined more by the exchange of money than by the flow of the rivers.
All of these transactions, many of which date back to the turn of the 20th century, are documented in a small room filled with crank-operated movable storage shelves at the District II Office of the State Engineer (OSE). Many large folders are torn around the edges or emit a cloud of dust when opened. Some contain hand-drawn maps from the 1940s or copies of typewritten letters from the 1970s, almost translucent with age. In some cases, these are the only records of major water transactions in New Mexico’s 110-year history as a state.
District II supervisor Juan Hernandez laughs when asked about the decrepit filing system.
“Are there things we could do better and improve if we had more resources? Absolutely,” he says. But it’s not just the District II office. The OSE as a whole has operated with a 25% reduction in its budget since 2017, and it has 67 fewer full-time staff than when Bill Richardson was governor from 2003 to 2011.
Funding issues reached a boiling point in November, when John D’Antonio, the state’s engineer, resigned from his position along with two of the agency’s top lawyers.
D’Antonio’s resignation, effective Jan. 1, left the office headless for several weeks, sending the already overburdened agency into a tailspin. Staff were stuck in a holding pattern, unsure if permits issued without an acting state engineer would be valid. But according to the resigning officials, the OSE was already pushed to its limits even before its exit.
“We have pushed the agency as far as we possibly can given the agency’s current staffing level and financial resources,” D’Antonio said in a statement after filing his resignation. He declined an interview request with Searchlight New Mexico.
It is undeniable that the OSE urgently needs additional funding and personnel. Yet a growing number of advocates, water managers and state officials say rotting paper records and persistent departmental dysfunction are not just a sign of tight budgets, but also a metaphor for an agency and a state water system that have fallen woefully behind schedule.
Faced with the specter of a parched New Mexico from climate change, some have begun to push back against a model of water that focuses primarily on using as much water as possible. Many reformers favor increased funding for water agencies like the OSE, but say the problems run much deeper. They believe it’s time to rethink a system that treats water as a commodity rather than a valuable resource.
“We relied on this weird notion that we have an ocean of fresh water in one aquifer or another, and that doesn’t match what we see,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham says. “We now need a whole new situation for a water policy effort. I think we need to rewrite what the state engineer’s office looks like.
In 1984, a real estate group placed an ad in Albuquerque Living Magazine with an illustration of a windsurfer gliding across a lake, with the Albuquerque skyline visible in the background. The white text on the image exclaimed: “Name a major US city on a large body of water.”
Rather than a mythical Albuquerque lake, the water in the image was meant to represent the city’s aquifer, which at the time was often described as unfathomable. This view was prevalent throughout Albuquerque, despite the fact that water managers were already observing something else: Wells in what had been some of the most productive parts of the aquifer are drying up.
“We knew the aquifer wasn’t behaving the way the mental picture was,” says Norm Gaume, who served as the city’s water resources manager in the 1990s and later headed the Interstate Stream Commission. . “Albuquerque is very well positioned to be resilient to climate change, but city development groups presented it as a city in the desert with an unlimited aquifer, and it wasn’t.”
Although repeated droughts and the creeping effects of climate change have tempered bold claims of water abundance in New Mexico, prevailing attitudes are still very much geared towards using as much water as possible.
“It’s really the story of the West,” says Gaume.
Since the late 1800s, western states have taken a largely first-come, first-served approach to water. The first water supply applicants have priority over other users. Often it doesn’t matter what the water is for as long as it is for something – an ill-defined policy known in water jargon as “beneficial use”. This system was designed to use every last drop of water at a time when the resource was relatively abundant. Today, faced with water scarcity due to droughts and climate change, water governance in New Mexico has not changed much.
“Whatever water is available, we want it to be used in a beneficial way and to contribute to economic development,” said John Romero, director of the water rights division and state engineer by interim. “We want to use it, not hoard it or waste it. It would be a terrible thing.
But the current system may not be equipped to deal with a drop in water supply. The OSE is authorized to issue new permits for water when it determines that the water exists and will not interfere with someone else’s supply. The agency is not required to analyze how climate change might affect this right to water in the future or to balance one type of use against another, such as drinking water against agricultural use.
Today, the retired Gaume — now president of Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates — is one of the most vocal proponents of water governance reform in New Mexico. He and other advocates say the current system is headed down a dangerous path, which may not leave enough water for river ecosystems, communities or traditional economic activities like agriculture.
The OSE funding is the first step toward getting the state’s water future on track, according to Gaume. With that in mind, his organization is seeking sponsors for bills that would increase the OSE staff budget by $10 million.
The group is seeking additional funding for infrastructure projects, launching new initiatives and helping New Mexico meet its water obligations to Texas. New Mexico is already facing litigation claiming years of deficient water deliveries, and as water supplies dwindle further, costly lawsuits are expected to multiply.
“If New Mexico is to survive its future in the face of climate change, it must adapt,” says Gaume. “Funding is the first step.”
But many government officials are reluctant to increase recurrent funds that much. The governor has proposed an increase of $2.3 million, while the Legislative Finance Committee suggests an even more modest increase of $979,000.
Other government officials say it’s hard to justify transferring money to an agency that seems more focused on preserving the current water system than preparing it for a future with less water.
Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) is spearheading several water reform initiatives during the 30-day legislative session this month. Although she supports the funding of water initiatives, she also expressed some skepticism about the idea of pouring money into the OSE.
“We can give you money, but we have to know exactly what it’s going to do,” she says. “Are we talking about pushing more water permits or are we talking about conserving water?”
Romero focuses his actions on water towards reform. She introduced a bill that would change the requirements for the position of state engineer. Currently, only licensed engineers can fill this position. If passed, the bill will allow hydrologists, geologists, geohydrologists and lawyers to qualify. This change would be part of a trend across the West, shifting the priorities of water management away from focusing on engineering-based solutions. It’s a shift that represents a conservation mentality.
But water reform in New Mexico is an uphill battle. Conservation is still frequently seen as contrary to the interests of industry. Last year, Andrea Romero sponsored a bill to make OSE operations more transparent (the agency is often criticized as a “black box”), defining “beneficial use” and requiring the agency to consider climate change when making water decisions.
She says the bill met with opposition from farmers and ranchers and eventually went to a second committee, which ultimately killed it.
“I think there’s a huge concern that what the reform means is turning off the taps for the industry and for future growth,” she says. “It’s easier to say that the status quo works better for big industry.”
But while water reform often faces challenges in the legislature, there have already been some recent changes in the Governor’s Office. Although she has yet to appoint a new state engineer, Lujan Grisham created a new position in January – a state water adviser. She has hired Mike Hamman, a former water manager in the central Rio Grande, who will help shape water policy with a greater emphasis on resilience and flexibility.
“It remains to be seen whether or not we can cope with every year of severe drought, but we are going to have a very good run,” says Hamman. “The biggest concern as a water professional and long-time water manager is: ‘Do we have the capacity and the resources to adapt quickly to changing conditions?’ These are the things that keep us up at night.