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AG: Water rights are a state issue

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New Mexico Attorney General Gary King on Tuesday accused the federal government of “trying to grab our groundwater” and said the state would fight a federal effort to intervene on Texas’s side in a dispute between the states over Rio Grande water.

The comment came in a written statement to reporters after King’s office filed a five-page brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office is trying to impose federal control over what should be a state water rights issue.

The brief argues that state courts, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court, are the proper forum for settling a dispute over the impact of New Mexico groundwater pumping on Rio Grande water deliveries to Texas.

The federal government last month sided with Texas in an ongoing dispute over allocating Rio Grande water in southern New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Texas charges that groundwater pumping in the Hatch and Mesilla valleys, most of it to irrigate pecans, chiles and other crops, is reducing flows in the Rio Grande, depriving Texas of water to which it is entitled.

The federal government, in a Feb. 27 filing with the Supreme Court, agreed, saying the pumping was also interfering with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s ability to deliver irrigation water from Elephant Butte Reservoir to Texas farmers.

The office of U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, which is representing the Bureau of Reclamation in the case, did not respond to a request for comment on King’s statement.

In their response to the court Tuesday, New Mexico’s attorneys said a state district court is the proper venue for an argument over whether groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is or is not improper under state water law.

King accused the federal government of using the Texas suit to try to “maneuver around” New Mexico state court. “I will do everything within my power to protect ground and surface water for New Mexicans,” King said.

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