Samantha Barncastle, general counsel of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, told state lawmakers that a settlement in an interstate compact compliance case involving the Rio Grande will not lead to an end of litigation.
“The farmers will push back somewhere,” she said during a Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting Tuesday in Las Cruces.
The proposed settlement comes following years of litigation between Texas and New Mexico in which Texas argued New Mexico is taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water, including through depleting river levels by groundwater pumping.
Hannah Riseley-White, the director of the Interstate Stream Commission, described the proposed agreement as being “almost like a new compact.”
“So we need to figure out how to meet the obligations under this new compact while continuing to meet our existing obligations under the Rio Grande compact, as we’ve been working to do for the last many decades,” she said.
She said more staff will be needed to do so.
While EBID did not agree to the settlement, Barncastle said the irrigation district determined it was in their best interest to collaborate to come up with a solution.
Barncastle said litigation is an effective tool at times.
Right now, she said, the irrigation district is focused on capturing or accounting for every drop of water possible.
“The days of loose accounting being forgiven by abundance of water are long gone, and we can no longer afford to fail to maximize the use of the resource. Water comes into our system differently now than it used to,” she said. “Large snowpack and runoff events are less reliable than they were 100 years ago when the West was dealing with runoff creating torrential rivers in the springtime requiring large dams and storage projects. Now we often see very little spring runoff, late starts to irrigation seasons and face storms at uncharacteristic times of the year that are short and intense, bringing large volumes of water into small areas with almost no notice.”
Climate change is impacting New Mexico’s water supplies and the ability to comply with water compacts, speakers told the lawmakers.
The Inflation Reduction Act may help address this to some extent, but there is competition for those dollars.
This funding is prioritized for the Colorado River Basin and other areas of the west that are experiencing comparable drought.
Barncastle said New Mexico faces a lot of competition for that funding.
“The Colorado River would love nothing more than to eat our lunch,” she said. “So we need to go and be proactive. We need to be lobbying for this. When I go to DC to lobby for this money, I get stomped on by Colorado River interests. We need New Mexico to step up and fast.”
In the southern part of the Middle Rio Grande, there’s only around 90 cubic feet of water moving per second through the channel that is not under prior and paramount restrictions. Those restrictions give the water to the Pueblos.
Jason Casuga, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said at the Isleta Diversion he is diverting about 10 cubic feet of water per second.
“If I were to just leave it in the river, it would never make it from Albuquerque down (to southern New Mexico.) It would dry up,” he said, pointing to reasons like lack of infrastructure.
The amount of storage available on the Rio Grande is currently limited by construction at the El Vado Dam.
But, even if that dam wasn’t under construction, Casuga said his agency would be unable to use it because New Mexico owes water to Texas.
“Until we can store water again, I think the river is going to suffer and I think farmers are going to suffer,” he said.