Texas, NM miss settlement deadline in groundwater case - Albuquerque Journal

Texas, NM miss settlement deadline in groundwater case

Elephant Butte Reservoir, pictured in June, is where New Mexico water deliveries to Texas are measured as part of the Rio Grande Compact. Texas alleges that New Mexico groundwater pumping south of Elephant Butte reduces river flows and violates the compact. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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Texas and New Mexico will move forward with a trial in a Supreme Court case over a groundwater dispute after failing to meet a settlement deadline.

Lawyers gathered in El Paso on Tuesday at the federal courthouse.

Federal judge Michael Melloy set a trial date for Jan. 17 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Jerri Mares, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, said that does not prevent the parties from working on a final agreement in the meantime.

“I think that moving forward as we continue with settlement negotiations, that’s still a real possibility,” Mares said.

Texas alleges groundwater pumping south of Elephant Butte Reservoir is reducing New Mexico’s water deliveries under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

The current conflict goes as far back as 2013.

In the trial’s first phase last fall, state Attorney General Hector Balderas said the dispute has implications for rural communities, and the economic “backbone” of chile and pecan farming.

“This case is about making sure that farmers, families and municipalities below Elephant Butte get what the states collectively thought was fair, regardless of which (side of the) state line they lived on,” Balderas said.

The compact mandates that New Mexico water obligations to Texas are measured by river flows at the Otowi Gage at San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The state must deliver a certain amount to Elephant Butte Reservoir each year.

But Texas says groundwater use south of that point reduces Rio Grande flows and violates the compact.

The yearslong case has involved irrigation districts, city utilities and state governments.

Melloy had tasked the parties with a Sept. 23 settlement agreement deadline, but attorneys reported last week that they weren’t ready.

Settlement negotiations are confidential.

New Mexico owes about 127,000 acre-feet of water, or 41 billion gallons, to Texas under the Rio Grande compact.

The state will face more storage and use restrictions if that debt reaches 200,000 acre-feet.

Water managers have pursued several programs to chip away at the water debt, including removing plants and sediment from the river channel; improving farm irrigation efficiency; and paying farmers not to grow for a season.

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