The nation’s highest court will likely have to settle a dispute between Texas and New Mexico over management of water from the Rio Grande – a case with the potential to dramatically curb groundwater pumping in some of New Mexico’s most fertile valleys and force the state to pay as much as $1 billion in damages.
Officials in both states have been waiting nearly a year for a recommendation on how the case should be handled.
Now, a special master assigned by the U.S. Supreme Court is recommending the rejection of a motion by New Mexico to dismiss the case, meaning it can move forward as long as the high court agrees.
Texas sued in 2013, claiming New Mexico failed to deliver water as required under a decades-old compact involving the river that serves more than 6 million people in several major cities and irrigates more than 3,100 square miles of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.
Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, whose district includes the border region, said the special master’s recommendation was not a surprise, and that he and a small group of lawmakers have been warning about potentially dire outcomes if Texas gains the upper hand in the legal battle.
Cervantes said the recommendation to let the case proceed seems to support demands by Texas for more water from the Rio Grande.
“A great deal more water delivered to Texas to make up for historic shortfalls seems to be a clear direction he’s going,” Cervantes said of the special master. “And since water won’t make up for all of the shortfalls, we’re looking at the risk of large financial damages.”
The parties have a chance to respond to the special master before the Supreme Court weighs in on what is the latest legal battle over water to pit states against one another. Connecticut and Massachusetts, Nebraska and Wyoming, and New York and New Jersey all have been embroiled in water disputes over the decades.
The federal government has weighed in on the New Mexico-Texas case, arguing that pumping north of the border is tapping a shallow aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the Rio Grande and flow to Texas and eventually to Mexico.
Officials in Texas made similar claims about water shortages under the compact more than a decade ago. Irrigation districts that serve farmers on both sides of the border reached an operating agreement with the federal government in 2008 that shared the burdens of drought while ensuring everyone received water allotments.
NM fired first shot
Local water managers say the agreement worked even during the driest of times, but former New Mexico Attorney General Gary King insisted the deal was more beneficial to Texas and sued over his concerns, setting the stage for Texas to take its complaints to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Current Attorney General Hector Balderas said New Mexico will continue to work diligently to protect state residents and their water supply.
New Mexico argues that its only duty under the compact is to deliver water to Elephant Butte Reservoir for storage for downstream users. It also argues that state law, not the compact, governs the distributions of water released from Elephant Butte within state boundaries.
Officials with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District – responsible for funneling Rio Grande Project water to farmers and other users – say the special master’s report implies that the water is protected by the compact and federal law.
In his report, the special master suggested New Mexico has a “stunted interpretation” of the compact and that the state may not divert or intercept water it’s required to deliver downstream.
The Rio Grande stretches from southern Colorado, through New Mexico and Texas and into Mexico. In recent years, stretches of the river have gone dry in New Mexico and flows often don’t reach the Gulf of Mexico.