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Feds side with Texas in battle over water

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal government Thursday sided with Texas in a battle over whether southern New Mexico groundwater pumping is depriving Texas farmers and cities of water that should rightfully be theirs.

The latest development in the cross-border water skirmish is a major setback to New Mexico, which argues that it is already meeting its legal obligations to share water with its neighbor.

In a brief filed Thursday, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli alleged that excess groundwater pumping in New Mexico is intercepting water in the shallow aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the Rio Grande and flow to Texas. Federal attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and order New Mexico to curtail such pumping to the extent that it is harming Texas water users.

The Texas suit has cast a cloud over the Rio Grande farming districts of Hatch and Mesilla valleys as the region enters the fourth consecutive year of extreme drought. Irrigation with Rio Grande water usually begins as early as March. This year, with a bad snowpack and a small reserve currently in Elephant Butte Reservoir, irrigation is not scheduled to start until June 1.

To make up for the river shortfall in dry years, many farmers use groundwater. The risk, according to pecan farmer Greg Daviet, is that the Texas suit could cut off that backup source of supply. “That is our biggest fear,” Daviet said Thursday, “that our groundwater pumping will be effective curtailed or eliminated.”

Farming in Doña Ana County, in and around the Las Cruces area, is a $400 million per year industry, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, with pecans and the area’s famed Hatch green chile among the region’s most notable crops.

The decision by the U.S. government, the largest water manager on that stretch of the river, to take Texas’ side is a major blow to New Mexico, said Steve Hernandez, a Las Cruces attorney who represents southern New Mexico’s largest farm water district.

A year ago, Texas asked the nation’s highest court to intervene, alleging that New Mexico’s groundwater pumping was draining away water from the Rio Grande, depriving the El Paso area of water to which it was legally entitled.

New Mexico lawyers argue the state has met its requirements under the Rio Grande Compact, the 1938 deal dividing the river’s water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

The U.S. government, which through the Bureau of Reclamation operates Elephant Butte Dam, and delivers water to farm water districts in New Mexico and Texas, has been seen as a key player in the dispute. But until Thursday, it was not clear whose side, if any, the agency would take in the ongoing battle.

New Mexico state officials Thursday declined comment beyond a statement that did not address the substance of the federal government’s arguments. “New Mexico lives within our water means. We think these are important facts to be considered by the Supreme Court,” the statement said.

In a talk about the litigation Wednesday at the University of New Mexico School of Law, Assistant New Mexico Attorney General Stephen Farris accused Texas of bullying its neighbors and having “an insatiable greed for water.”

Lawyers say it could take years before any decision in the case is made.