The tony neighborhoods tucked into the juniper-dotted grasslands on the east side of the Sandia Mountains represent yet another battleground in New Mexico’s water wars, one in which the state’s top water official has abandoned one side for the other. Last week, testimony ended in a trial over whether a private company can pump more water—114 million gallons more each year—from the Sandia Basin. Nancy Benson and her husband live in San Pedro Creek Estates, where they built their retirement home in 2000 after living in Albuquerque. She is shocked the state would consider granting the application after rejecting it previously. “This area is fully appropriated, there is nothing extra,” she said.
As severe drought returns to New Mexico, farmers and skiers alike fret over the state’s lack of snow. Meanwhile, on a cold, cloudy Monday morning in Washington, D.C., attorneys for New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and the United States government grappled over the muddy waters of the Rio Grande. In its U.S. Supreme Court case against New Mexico and Colorado, the State of Texas says that by letting farmers in southern New Mexico pump from wells near the Rio Grande, our state has failed to send its legal share of water downstream. The water fight has some New Mexicans gnawing their nails—and not just southern farmers whose water rights could be cut if Texas prevails. See all of NM Political Report’s stories on Texas v. New Mexico to date. Monday’s oral arguments before the court, over whether the feds can intervene under the Rio Grande Compact, drew a large crowd from the Land of Enchantment.
At the end of last year, a state judge chipped away at a company’s plans to reopen a long-abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro. On Dec. 28, New Mexico Third Judicial District Court Judge James J. Wechsler found that most of the water rights claimed by the company are not valid. New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) planned to use groundwater rights that two men purchased after operations were abandoned at Copper Flat Mine in 1982. William Frost and Harris Gray, along with NMCC and its attorneys, tried to show that those rights were still valid, even though the water hadn’t been put to use over the past four decades—or even when the mine operated.
Garrett Petrie and Teri Farley moved to New Mexico about ten years ago. They found a house on five acres in the East Mountains because they liked being “off the grid.” Moving from Tucson, they were both well-aware of the water issues in the region. “We asked a lot of questions,” Petrie said. “We kept hearing things like, the wells really vary out here and you can get a good one, you can get a bad one.”
They thought they had a good well when they bought the house.
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 federal court has thwarted plans by the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend an Obama-era rule tracking and cutting methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. Last month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suspended his agency’s implementation of the rule, which was opposed by the American Petroleum Institute, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. But on Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with six environmental groups and granted an emergency stay of Pruitt’s suspension. In their opinion, the appeals court judges wrote that Pruitt’s suspension of the rule was both “unauthorized” and “unreasonable.” They overturned it, calling it arbitrary, capricious and in excess of the agency’s statutory authority. Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the court decision could have a big effect on New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern part of the state.
Attorneys for the states of New Mexico and Texas learned yesterday that a lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande will head to the U.S. Supreme Court. For New Mexico, a lot is at stake. Though Texas also named Colorado in the suit, its real target is New Mexico. Texas alleges that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater connected to the river, the state is unfairly taking water from the Rio Grande that, under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, should be flowing to Texas. When Texas filed a similar suit against New Mexico about the Pecos River, the case dragged on for almost two decades, and cost both states millions of dollars.
At Monday’s meeting of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), directors voted to accept two of the state’s regional water plans, one for Lea County and another for the Lower Pecos Valley. The plans are part of a legislatively-mandated regional water planning effort, which at some point is supposed to be rolled into an updated water plan for the entire state. The process dates back to the 1980s. Over the past few years, ISC staff, consultants and local stakeholders have updated plans for each of the state’s 16 water districts. All regional water plan must be accepted by the Interstate Stream Commission, a public body made up of governor appointees.