The Rio Grande Compact is an enforceable 1938 water-sharing agreement among New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and the United States. We’re 10 years into an expensive U.S. Supreme Court compact lawsuit with Texas and the United States regarding overuse of the Lower Rio Grande’s water.
Overuse of water in the Middle Rio Grande is rapidly leading toward a new violation and another Texas lawsuit. Such a violation would bring massive statewide costs. Emergency actions are needed to deliver the Lower Rio Grande’s share through the Middle Rio Grande.
Overuse upstream causes under-delivery downstream: The Middle Rio Grande region is allowed by the compact to consume a fraction of annual native Rio Grande inflows entering the region at the Otowi gage near Los Alamos. It must deliver the remainder to Elephant Butte Dam for use in southern New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Recently, the Middle Rio Grande region has been regularly over-using and under-delivering.
To avoid imminent violation-and another Texas lawsuit-New Mexico must significantly rein in regional water consumption. This requires tighter management and control of demand.
The Lower Rio Grande – a cautionary example: Public records show New Mexico taxpayers and ratepayers have already spent over $56 million on the ongoing Lower Rio Grande litigation and are still spending heavily. The state should expect similar costs for a Middle Rio Grande water debt lawsuit.
It’s better to prevent the compact violation rather than experience costly, attention diverting, years-long, secretive litigation, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court require the state to figure out how to reduce its uses anyway.
The current situation: In recent dry years, river water users in the Middle Rio Grande have absorbed all supply reductions. Groundwater pumping has increased at the expense of future river flows. Compact deliveries have been shorted routinely. This current situation is neither equitable nor sustainable. New Mexico must reduce Middle Rio Grande depletions.
What needs to be done? The Legislature and the governor must provide state water management agencies with the capacity – skilled personnel, modern tools and information systems – to do their jobs.
State engineer rules approved by the state’s Supreme Court in 2012 are called “Active Water Resource Management.” They allow either priority administration to cut excessive water use or an alternative shortage-sharing agreement among the region’s users. Priority administration would be onerous, especially upon those whose uses of water started more recently.
Instead of strict priority administration, the Middle Rio Grande needs a shortage-sharing agreement to prioritize compact deliveries while equitably sharing the pain of diminished annual water supplies. The Legislature and the governor should provide leadership and strong incentives for Middle Rio Grande water users to negotiate such an agreement rather than litigate.
Incentives might include: taking emergency measures to implement priority administration to ensure compact deliveries, apportioning the costs of any compact lawsuit to the water users, and conditioning state water funding of projects on a workable region-wide shortage-sharing agreement.
Action is needed now: To avoid the consequences of violation, especially in view of climate change and increasing aridification, New Mexico must cut Middle Rio Grande water depletions immediately and for the long term. New Mexico must establish incentives for equitable, enforceable shortage-sharing that limits the Middle Rio Grande’s water consumption to its legal share.