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Federal lawyers suggest resolution of water fight with Texas

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The U.S. Supreme Court should step in and help resolve a dispute between Texas and New Mexico over water management on the Rio Grande, attorneys for the federal government argued in a brief filed with the court Tuesday.

But the court should leave the door open for a quick resolution of the controversy, the U.S. Solicitor General’s office argued.

Texas claims groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is draining the Rio Grande, depriving water users in Texas of their rightful supply under the Rio Grande Compact, an interstate deal dividing up the river’s water. New Mexico claims it is delivering all the water that is required under the compact, and the Supreme Court has no business even considering Texas’ argument.

The federal lawyers did not take sides in the argument, but they suggested the dispute between the two states raised serious questions that need the help of the highest court in the nation to resolve. The U.S. government is involved because the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is responsible for delivery of much of the water involved in the dispute.

At issue is a procedural question: Should the Supreme Court take up Texas’ complaint, or, as New Mexico’s attorneys have argued, leave it for other courts to decide? If the court sides with Texas, it could launch a lengthy and expensive battle over how the Rio Grande’s water should be shared. A similar case between Arizona and California took 11 years to resolve.

If the court sides with New Mexico, Texas’ claims would be halted in their tracks or diverted to lower state and federal courts.

The Solicitor General’s brief suggests a middle ground. The Supreme Court should take up the case, as Texas has requested, but it should adopt a procedural approach that gives New Mexico a chance to quickly move for dismissal, allowing an early ruling on some of the case’s central issues.

State officials Tuesday said they were still reviewing the 33-page federal brief and declined detailed comment. But Phil Sisneros, spokesman for Attorney General Gary King, said the state’s lawyers were encouraged by the federal suggestion that the Supreme Court consider the possibility of issuing a quick ruling on New Mexico’s claims that the Texas claim is baseless.

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