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Troubled waters | Searchlight New Mexico - Energy And Water Development Corp

Troubled waters | Searchlight New Mexico


Juan Hernandez, the District II supervisor, 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 on a 25 percent reduction in its budget since 2017, and it has 67 fewer full-time employees than it did back when Bill Richardson was governor from 2003 to 2011.

The funding issues reached a boiling point in November, when John D’Antonio, the state engineer, resigned his post along with two of the agency’s top lawyers. 

D’Antonio’s resignation, effective Jan. 1, left the office leaderless 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 being pushed to its very limits even before their exit.

“We’ve taken the agency as far as we can, given the current agency staffing level and funding resources,” D’Antonio said in a statement after filing his resignation. He declined a request for an interview with Searchlight New Mexico. 

There’s no disputing the OSE’s dire need for more funding and staff. Yet a growing number of advocates, water managers and state officials say the department’s decaying paper files and persistent dysfunction are not just a sign of tight budgets, but also a metaphor for an agency and a state water system that’s fallen distressingly behind the times.

Confronted with the specter of a New Mexico parched by climate change, some have begun to push back against a water model that focuses primarily on putting as much water to use as possible. Many reformers favor increased funding to water agencies like the OSE, but say the problems go much deeper. They believe it’s time to rethink a system that treats water as a commodity rather than a precious resource.

“We’ve relied on this weird notion that we have an ocean of fresh water in one aquifer or another, and that is inconsistent with what we see,” says Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “We now need a whole new situation for a water-policy effort. I think that we need to rewrite what the state engineer’s office looks like.”

In 1984, a real-estate group published an ad in Albuquerque Living Magazine with an illustration of a windsurfer gliding across a lake, the Albuquerque skyline visible in the background. White text over the image exclaimed: “Name a great American city on a large body of water.”

Rather than a mythical Albuquerque lake, the water in the image was supposed to represent the city’s aquifer, which, at the time, was often portrayed as fathomless. This view was widespread throughout Albuquerque, despite the fact that water managers there were already observing something else: Wells in what had been some of the most productive parts of the aquifer were going dry. 

“We knew that the aquifer was not behaving in the way the mental picture was,” says Norm Gaume, who served as the city’s water resource manager during the 90s and later directed the Interstate Stream Commission. “Albuquerque is very well positioned to be resilient in the face of climate change, but development groups in the city were presenting it as a city in the desert with a limitless aquifer, and that was not the case.”

Though repeated droughts and the creeping effects of climate change have tempered the audacious claims of New Mexico’s water abundance, prevailing attitudes are still very much geared toward using as much water as possible. 





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