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Water management lawsuit put on hold

A federal judge on Friday issued a stay in the state of New Mexico’s lawsuit against the federal government over Rio Grande water management, saying a separate lawsuit by the state of Texas against New Mexico might render the issues in the state-federal lawsuit moot.

The tangle of litigation revolves around water flowing out of Elephant Butte Reservoir to farms and cities in southern New Mexico and northwest Texas.

New Mexico sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2011, alleging the federal water agency was releasing water from Elephant Butte for use in Texas that really belonged to New Mexico.

Texas fired back in January with a suit against the state of New Mexico charging that groundwater pumping in the Hatch and Mesilla valleys of southern New Mexico was draining the Rio Grande, depriving Texas of water to which it was entitled under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact. Texas “does not receive the water it bargained for,” the state’s attorneys claimed in a brief filed with the court.

Because the issue involves a conflict between states, Texas is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and help resolve the conflict.

Federal District Court Judge James Browning ruled Friday that New Mexico’s 2011 suit should be put on hold while the Supreme Court decides whether to take up Texas’ case.

The dispute is the latest round in a longstanding conflict over water in the Rio Grande and the aquifers beneath the river’s valley from Hatch to Las Cruces. The valley is one of New Mexico’s most productive farming regions, but upstream-downstream arguments among water users have bedeviled the farm communities of New Mexico, Texas and Mexico for more than a century.

In recent decades, Texas water users have both tried to pump groundwater in New Mexico to pipe south for use in Texas and also claimed that New Mexico groundwater pumping in the area is depleting Rio Grande waters before they reach the Texas state line.

To try to resolve the dispute, irrigation districts in Texas and New Mexico signed a deal with the federal government allocating a larger share of Rio Grande water to Texas. But state officials objected, filing suit to block the deal.

Stephen Farris with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office expressed disappointment with Browning’s ruling, saying, “There will be delay for our citizens who depend on surface water. New Mexico’s farmers in the lower Rio Grande need to have access to their fair share of water, especially during this unforgiving drought.”

The Bureau of Reclamation declined comment pending a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether it will take up Texas’ case.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal