New Mexico filed its responses to Texas and the federal government on a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande. On Tuesday night, New Mexico Attorney General and its contract attorneys filed the state’s counterclaims on Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado. We’ve posted those three pleadings below. A press release announcing the counterclaims included a quote from Balderas: Our legal strategy will hold Texas and the federal government accountable for the significant amount of precious water being misappropriated that rightfully belongs to New Mexico’s working families and small businesses, and for the federal government not using proper accounting and failing to ensure reasonable water delivery improvements. Using the best science, technology and evidence-based strategy, we will protect our traditionally underserved and culturally diverse population, and protect against those interests that threaten our citizens and businesses.
Despite the rains that doused parts of New Mexico on Monday, the state officially entered into drought conditions on the Rio Grande when water levels in two key reservoirs dipped below a critical legal threshold. On Sunday, New Mexico entered into Article VII restrictions as storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs dropped below 400,000 acre-feet. Under Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, that means Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any upstream reservoirs built after 1929. In the Rio Grande watershed, reservoirs capture and store native Rio Grande water and water piped from northwestern New Mexico via the San Juan-Chama Project. Each drop is earmarked for particular users and managed under the legal strictures of the compact.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall joined fellow Democrats to question U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt about his ethical and spending decisions. As reported by the Washington Post, Udall grilled Pruitt: Udall, describing Pruitt’s management of the agency as “disastrous,” again called on Pruitt to resign. The former Oklahoma attorney general, he said, has treated his “position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.” Irrigators in northwestern New Mexico are worried about the drought, prompting New Mexico State University to offer a workshop on water conservation, according to the Farmington Daily Times. Noel Smith also reports that the filing period has started for Navajo Nation elections. The Carlsbad Current-Argus has an update from the city’s mayor on efforts to remediate the area’s brine well.
The signs of rising temperatures are obvious across New Mexico right now, from the mountains to the river valleys, and from rangelands to suburban backyards. “Climate change for the Southwest is all about water,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who has spent decades studying climate change and its impacts in the southwestern United States. Warming affects the amount of water flowing in streams, and the amount of water available to nourish forests, agricultural fields and orchards. There’s also the physics of the matter: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, demanding more from land surfaces. Plants need more water, too.
I smell the mounds of dead fish before seeing them. By now, the fish are desiccated. Most lie in low spots along the riverbanks where they crammed together, taking refuge as the last of the puddles and rivulets dried. The temperature is in the high 80s as we trudge up the sandy channel of the Rio Grande upstream of the town of San Antonio. I wonder what it must have smelled like two or three weeks ago, when the river first dried here.
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.
For more than a decade, researchers have explained that warming will affect water supplies in the southwestern United States. Now in a new paper, hydrologist Shaleene Chavarria and University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor David Gutzler show climate change is already affecting the amount of streamflow in the Rio Grande that comes from snowmelt.
“We see big changes in the winter and early spring,” said Chavarria. “Big changes in winter temperature, increases in springtime temperatures and decreases in streamflow.”
The paper, recently published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, is based on her graduate work in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. Snowpack is the main driver of the Rio Grande’s flows in the Upper Basin of New Mexico, explained Chavarria, who examined annual and monthly changes in climate variables and streamflow volume in southern Colorado for the years 1958 through 2015. She found that flows have diminished in March, April and May.
As high winds whipped dust, Siberian elm seeds and recycling bins around Albuquerque Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office to hear the agency’s 2018 forecast for water operations on the Rio Grande. “I’ll be the bearer of bad news,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “This is the most extreme shift we’ve had from one operating plan meeting to another.”
Last year at this time, snowmelt was pouring down the river, flooding riparian restoration projects, filling out farm fields and even pressing against levees. This year, the lack of snowpack throughout the watershed’s mountain ranges has left the Rio Grande low and slow—and dry for 14 miles south of Socorro. Currently, the river is dry through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro. Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that depend on it. Earlier this week, biologists headed to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to start scooping up endangered fish from pools and puddles and relocating them to a stretch of the river that is still flowing.
There will be a new special master in the legal battle between Texas and New Mexico over the waters of the Rio Grande. The U.S. Supreme Court discharged Special Master Gregory Grimsal, a New Orleans-based attorney, in an order this week, replacing him on the case with Judge Michael Melloy of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 2013, Texas sued the upstream states of New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump from groundwater wells near the Rio Grande, the state has failed to send its legal share of water downstream. In a unanimous opinion last month, the U.S. Supreme Court also allowed the United States to intervene in the case and pursue its claims that New Mexico has harmed its ability to deliver water under the Rio Grande Compact and under its international treaty with Mexico. Were New Mexico to lose against Texas and the federal government, the state could be forced to curtail groundwater pumping and pay damages of a billion dollars or more.