Texas, New Mexico must settle groundwater dispute by Sept. 23 - Albuquerque Journal

Texas, New Mexico must settle groundwater dispute by Sept. 23

In this photo from June, the Rio Grande meets the dam at Elephant Butte Reservoir. A federal judge said last week that if Texas and New Mexico don’t finalize a settlement agreement in a groundwater dispute by Sept. 23, the case will go to trial in the U.S. Supreme Court in January. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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Lawyers in the long-running Texas vs. New Mexico groundwater dispute have until Sept. 23 to finalize a settlement agreement, a federal judge has ordered.

Texas alleges New Mexico’s groundwater pumping south of Elephant Butte Reservoir is shorting the state’s water deliveries under the Rio Grande Compact.

Texas attorney Stuart Somach said that a “failure” to adhere to conditions of the 1938 agreement is harming downstream farmers and municipalities.

“Groundwater pumping in New Mexico intercepts return flow,” he said, “and that has the effect of increasing consumptive use in New Mexico that, in turn, results in more water being subtracted upstream than the compact intended and allows.”

Michael Melloy, the federal judge serving as a special master over the case, held an Aug. 24 status conference with lawyers for Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and the United States.

In an order after the conference, Melloy outlined several deadlines and court dates:

• Aug. 30: confidential draft settlement agreement released to lawyers

• Sept. 2: confidential draft settlements of “intra-New Mexico” issues released to lawyers

• Sept. 21: parties file status report

• Sept. 23: deadline for finalized settlement agreement

• Sept. 27: status conference in El Paso

“I assume that, by (Sept. 21), the parties will have a pretty good idea as to whether they will meet the Sept. 23 deadline, and we will be talking about implementation of the settlement agreement or whether the settlement discussions have fallen apart, and we need to gear up for trial,” Melloy said.

If states can’t agree on a settlement, Melloy said, the case will go to trial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in early January.

Randy Garay, who grows chile, onions and alfalfa near Hatch, is one of hundreds of farmers who supplement surface water allotments from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District with groundwater.

“If we were unable to use groundwater … we wouldn’t be able to farm,” Garay said.

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and EBID will each hold closed meetings on Friday to discuss the case.

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