The Colorado River supplies water for more than 36 million people in two countries and seven states, including New Mexico. As river flows and reservoir levels decline due to drought, warming and over-demand, states are wrangling over how to voluntarily conserve water use—before reservoir levels reach critically low levels and trigger mandatory cutbacks. New Mexico is one of the states most vulnerable to the impacts climate change is wreaking on the river. Yet, it’s unclear what the state is doing when it comes to drought management in the state and basin-wide negotiations on the Colorado. The seven states subject to the Colorado River Compact are divided into Upper Basin states—Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah—and Lower Basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California.
Last winter, snows didn’t come to the mountains, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande suffered from drought. In April, the river—New Mexico’s largest—was already drying south of Socorro. And over the summer, reservoir levels plummeted. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Texas, New Mexico and the U.S. government over the waters of the Rio Grande marches onward. At a meeting at the end of August, the special master assigned to the case by the Supreme Court set some new deadlines: The discovery period will close in the summer of 2020 and the case will go to trial no later than that fall.
As state agencies move forward with plans to study reusing wastewater from oil and gas drilling, some environmental and community groups want the administration to slow down. They’re concerned about the working group’s quick schedule and lack of transparency thus far on an issue they say demands careful study. This summer, New Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and formed a working group to figure out how wastewater might be reused within the oilfield itself—and someday, beyond it. As we reported last month, the state initiated the process with the EPA. Following the publication of that story, representatives from more than 15 environmental and community groups signed onto a letter to the EPA which said the agreement between the federal agency and the state violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and requesting the federal agency withdraw.
As drying in the Middle Rio Grande spreads, and a lawsuit over the river’s waters moves through the U.S. Supreme Court, a top Texas official is calling out New Mexico’s water boss. Texas’ commissioner on the Rio Grande Compact Commission, Patrick Gordon, wrote a letter to New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine earlier this month. In it, he noted that certain actions by Blaine could put New Mexico at risk for even greater damages if Texas prevails in its case on the Rio Grande. Specifically, Gordon is concerned Blaine will approve a copper company’s plan to pump more than a billion gallons of groundwater each year from near Hillsboro, N.M.
Doing so would would violate the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, Gordon wrote, adding: “These ongoing violations reinforce Texas’s action in the United States Supreme Court and add to its recoverable damages against New Mexico.”
Five years ago, Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater near the Rio Grande, New Mexico failed for decades to send its legal share of water downstream. Texas filed the lawsuit after New Mexico sued over a 2008 operating agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, southern New Mexico farmers and Texas water users.
This week, three members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) resigned, including Chairman Caleb Chandler, Jim Wilcox and longtime director, Jim Dunlap. In his resignation letter, Dunlap wrote that he was leaving the ISC with “great concern for lack of direction from the State Engineer and adherence to New Mexico State Statutes.”
Dunlap explained that decision to NM Political Report Thursday evening. “I felt like our state engineer was trying to take over and be totally in control of the ISC and wouldn’t let us do our job in the sense that the statutes call for,” Dunlap said. “He fires our director without any of us knowing why or anything—and she was working out quite well, I thought. But she didn’t take orders from him, and he didn’t like that, and he up and fired her.”
The commission consists of nine directors by the governor, including the director of the ISC and the state engineer, who serves as secretary.
The Legislative Finance Committee held its September meeting at Spaceport America, surrounded by cattle ranches and seemingly endless expanses of mesquite. On Thursday afternoon, legislators were updated on an issue that doesn’t involve rockets or space travel—but is critically important to the state’s future: the Texas v. New Mexico lawsuit in the lower Rio Grande. In 2013, Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado in the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging that New Mexico was taking water that legally should flow to Texas under the terms of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact by allowing farmers to pump groundwater connected to the river. Were the Supreme Court to side with Texas, it could force some southern New Mexico chile, pecan and cotton farmers to stop pumping groundwater. Or, the state could even wind up paying Texas up to $1 billion in damages.
A few weeks ago, we reported on a proposal by Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC to build a pipeline and pump 54,000 acre-feet of water each year from the aquifer to the Albuquerque area. The 37 wells would all be in Catron County near the town of Datil. Now in its third iteration, the application is pending before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. In July, the state agency canceled a pre-hearing meeting. But last week, it released the application’s scheduling order, which includes information about the project and the process, as well as upcoming public meetings.
Driving on Highway 60 across the Plains of San Agustin, it’s easy to dwell on the past. The floor of the valley cradled a lake during the Pleistocene, and windmills and stock tanks fleck the green expanse that stretches for some 50 miles, west of Magdalena and toward the Gila National Forest. But it’s not the past Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand is worried about. It’s the future. A decade ago, her brother and father spotted a legal notice in the newspaper announcing that the ranch next door planned to drill 37 wells into the aquifer that provides water for the area.