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Cooperation Is Essential To Water Use

Drought has dominated news headlines this summer, and for those in water management and those whose livelihoods rely on water, it is a challenging time. As competition increases for finite water resources, the Bureau of Reclamation and our partners continuously look for ways to stretch limited supplies and manage our projects more efficiently.

The Rio Grande in New Mexico has been experiencing significant drought, and it has been the source of many news reports lately based on two ongoing lawsuits. In public discussion of these lawsuits, the position of the United States has been mischaracterized in some circumstances, something I’d like to clarify.

In the Lower Rio Grande basin, the United States is participating in a state-initiated adjudication of water rights. That state court adjudication includes the water rights for the Rio Grande Project, a Reclamation project authorized by Congress in 1905 to provide water for irrigation districts in New Mexico and Texas, and to fulfill the United States’ treaty obligations to Mexico.

The United States seeks to protect the water supply for the Rio Grande Project, one of the most senior rights on the river. At the same time, we respect New Mexico’s authority to administer surface and groundwater in accordance with applicable state and federal law.

Reclamation’s claim is simply for a water right protecting the project’s senior surface right while maintaining a system that allows for wise conjunctive use of surface and groundwater to meet the needs of farmers and local communities. In a recent ruling in the adjudication case, Judge James J. Wechsler made several findings that set forth principles we believe are needed to protect the interests of water users served by the project. The United States looks forward to continued participation in the adjudication consistent with these principles.

The 2008 operating agreement for the Rio Grande Project has also been publicly discussed and is at the center of a separate New Mexico lawsuit against Reclamation in federal court. The operating agreement between Reclamation, Elephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso Water Improvement District No. 1 in Texas resolved long-standing litigation between the parties and developed a system to account for the impact groundwater withdrawals have on surface water deliveries. These deliveries are necessary to provide water to both districts and Mexico consistent with existing contracts and the 1906 treaty. The United States disputes assertions that it has improperly taken water from New Mexico or taken action contrary to the Rio Grande Compact.

Overall, a long-term solution to the disputes on the lower Rio Grande must acknowledge the impact that junior groundwater pumping has on project delivery efficiency and the shallow aquifer surrounding the river, canals and drains associated with the project.

Wise management of this system has enabled the project to meet delivery obligations for decades, but hydrologic changes brought about by more wells, changing cropping patterns and drought require that all parties now cooperate to address the impacts of groundwater pumping on surface water rights.

We must now ask ourselves whether these lawsuits are the best way to achieve a much-needed sustainable solution. I believe the answer is no. The lawsuits are unlikely to provide the clarity and certainty needed to effectively manage an increasingly scarce resource.

This will require the cooperation of water managers as opposed to aggressive posturing by lawyers. A collaborative approach to implementing a management system that offsets the impact of junior groundwater pumping on surface flows is our goal. If the state believes that requires modifications to the operating agreement, Reclamation will work with the state, Elephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso Water Improvement District No. 1 to address those concerns.

The state of New Mexico and the Bureau of Reclamation have worked together for the last century. It is our hope that we can continue this valued partnership. Working together, we can and must find a realistic solution to the water management problems plaguing this region.