Juan Hernandez, the supervisor of District II, 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 overstretched 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 level of staffing 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 dysfunctions 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.