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Water is life in the arid Southwest, and the state engineer is tasked with overseeing New Mexico’s scarce water supplies.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Andrea Romero would open up the state’s top water post to several different professions, instead of limiting the position to licensed professional engineers.
The Santa Fe Democrat said the “timing is right” for the change.
The position was left vacant after John D’Antonio resigned at the end of 2021 and has not yet been filled by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“We have an opportunity now to think about the future and the bigger picture of New Mexico’s management of water,” Romero said.
Current law mandates that the position be filled by a “technically qualified and registered professional engineer” who is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
House Bill 83 would add “qualified or appropriately credentialed geohydrologist, hydrologist, or attorney” to the list of eligible professions.
Licensed professional engineers in New Mexico must graduate from a university with an engineering curriculum approved by a state board, have at least four years of work experience and pass two rounds of examinations.
New Mexico has had 16 different State Engineers since 1905, all men, with D’Antonio serving stints under the Bill Richardson and Michelle Lujan Grisham administrations.
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D’Antonio’s salary was about $158,000 at the time of his resignation.
The state engineer is New Mexico’s representative for several interstate water compacts.
The position also oversees an agency which is in litigation with Texas before the Supreme Court over groundwater disputes.
In a statement outlining reasons for his resignation, D’Antonio cited a “glaring non-response from the Legislature” for funding the 50-year water plan, drought response and processing water rights for cannabis production.
“We’ve taken the agency as far as we can, given the current agency staffing level and funding resources,” D’Antonio said.
The bill has been referred to the House Agriculture, Acequias and Water Resources Committee.
“We need the kind of visionary leader who can take on our situation with drought and climate change, and broadening those (job) qualifications will really allow us to get a great pool of candidates who are experts in their field,” Romero said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.