October 26, 2022

Agreement may resolve Rio Grande water dispute

Laura Paskus

Downstream of Elephant Butte Dam, water issues get even trickier.

After nine years of litigation, the states of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado have reached an agreement that could resolve the dispute over Rio Grande water, though a major stumbling block remains.

This comes after Texas sued New Mexico in 2013, arguing that the use of groundwater meant that Texas was not getting its fair share of the water from the Rio Grande. This groundwater use is occurring in a section between Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico and Hudspeth County, Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court appointed a special master in 2014 to oversee the case.
Tuesday’s announcement comes as part of a status conference and the three states hinted at the possibility in a filing made on Monday.

In a Tuesday press release, the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General stated that if finalized the agreement will resolve the legal dispute between the states.

But, while the three states have agreed, the federal government is not on board. The states anticipated that, according to Monday’s filing. Legal questions remain as to whether the states can settle the dispute without the United States’ approval.

“Extreme drought and erratic climate events necessitate that states must work together to protect the Rio Grande which is the lifeblood of our New Mexico farmers and communities, and I’m very disappointed that the U.S. is exerting federal overreach and standing in the way of the States’ historic water agreement,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a press release.

The three states plan to submit a motion asking for the U.S. Supreme Court to approve the agreement.

Details of the agreement are currently sealed by a court order, however Monday’s filing hints at what is included.

The filing made on Monday indicates that the proposed agreement would “carve out” interstate Rio Grande Compact issues from intrastate issues associated with how the Rio Grande Project is administered within New Mexico. The Rio Grande Project includes Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs.

According to Monday’s filing, the states have not reached an agreement on those intrastate issues, but New Mexico “remains willing and prepared to continue discussions with the United States related to Project operations and water rights administration within New Mexico.”

Special Master Michael Melloy will hear arguments on the motion to approve the agreement as well as the United States’ response on Jan. 24.