States inch closer to Rio Grande settlement - Albuquerque Journal

States inch closer to Rio Grande settlement

A jet skier explores Elephant Butte Reservoir in June. New Mexico, Texas and Colorado have “carved out” a proposed settlement in the Supreme Court groundwater case over Rio Grande deliveries south of Elephant Butte. But objections from the U.S. government could prompt the case to go to trial. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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New Mexico, Texas and Colorado have “carved out” a proposed settlement in the Supreme Court groundwater case over Rio Grande deliveries, the states announced Tuesday.

But objections from the U.S. government could force the case to go to trial.

New Mexico attorney Jeffrey Wechsler told a federal judge during a virtual status conference that the proposal is a “reasonable and sensible solution.”

“We believe that this is the most efficient way to resolve this case,” he said.

In a lawsuit that goes back to 2013, Texas alleges that New Mexico’s groundwater pumping south of Elephant Butte Reservoir shorts the state’s water deliveries under the Rio Grande Compact.

The settlement negotiations are confidential, but a resolution would likely involve a monetary settlement or a change in how groundwater is managed in southern New Mexico.

Not everyone in the case is on the same page and Tuesday’s hearing was occasionally contentious.

Attorneys for the United States and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District said they were “vehemently” opposed to the settlement as proposed.

EBID attorney Samantha Barncastle compared the states’ proposal to “leftovers scraped together” from a “dinner that got cold.”

“EBID is very strongly in favor of settling this case in the right way,” Barncastle said. “We haven’t done it – this doesn’t do it.”

U.S. attorneys said the proposal doesn’t address the federal government’s claims about interference with regional water project management.

Judge Michael Melloy accused the government lawyers of originally saying they had an agreement in principle, then backtracking on that statement.

He also warned that the dispute could “go on forever” if the Supreme Court essentially becomes a “referee” on regional water management.

“So don’t start down that, ‘oh, poor United States of America, we’re too busy to talk about settlement, and we don’t have the resources and we’re stretched too thin.’ I’m not buying that argument,” Melloy said.

The three Rio Grande Compact states face a Nov. 14 deadline for requesting Melloy to approve the agreement.

The U.S. government has until Jan. 6 to provide a response.

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