Given SCOTUS lawsuit, Texas keeps an eye on NM’s groundwater management

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. […]

Given SCOTUS lawsuit, Texas keeps an eye on NM’s groundwater management

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 year, the Supreme Court allowed the U.S. government to intervene in the case against New Mexico, too.

“Texas is not trying to take New Mexico’s water, at all,” Gordon said to NM Political Report of Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado. “What we’re hoping is New Mexico will manage its groundwater in a manner that does not impact deliveries of surface water to Texas, which is what the problem is now.”

Like water for copper

Eight years ago, New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) started lining up permits to re-open an abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro. It planned to use groundwater rights purchased in the 1980s, but last year, a state judge found most of the water rights claimed by the company are no longer valid.

NMCC appealed that decision and filed a new application with the Office of the State Engineer to pump 5,234 acre-feet of water each year.

Orchards in southern New Mexico rely upon water from the Rio Grande

Opposed by some local residents and landowners, the mine also attracted attention from downstream water users along the Rio Grande. Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the New Mexico Pecan Growers opposed the project, commenting that pumping groundwater for the mine could affect the water rights of its members. In a 2016 letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which was studying potential impacts from the mine’s reopening, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission(ISC) noted that BLM didn’t adequately consider impacts on New Mexico’s ability to meet its Rio Grande water delivery requirements to Texas.

In the BLM’s 2017 environmental impact statement, the agency noted the predicted reductions in groundwater will have a “more notable effect on the Rio Grande, reducing surface water flows and potentially the amount of water stored behind Caballo Reservoir.”

Caballo Reservoir is just downstream of Elephant Butte Reservoir; the two store water for downstream users in New Mexico and Texas.

‘I feel like we had no choice’

“We’re concerned about the actions of the State Engineer,” Gordon told NM Political Report, adding that Texas isn’t trying involve itself in how New Mexico manages its groundwater. Gordon also noted that the problems didn’t start with Blaine, but have been ongoing since “way before” Blaine became State Engineer in 2014.

“This is not about New Mexico’s groundwater,” Gordon explained. “But if you read the environmental impact statement, it talks about river flow and storage in Caballo. That’s surface water. And surface water is what’s delivered to Texas.”

The proposed mine could also affect water quality, he said. “The tailings ponds are [in the watershed] right above Caballo: what happens if those leak?” he asked. “That’s not just a Texas issue.”

In his letter to Blaine, Gordon also disputed that the company’s acquisition of water rights from the Jicarilla Apache Nation is a solution.

In a 2015 agreement, NMCC proposed leasing San Juan-Chama water from the Jicarilla Apache Nation. (That is water piped from the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, into the Chama, which feeds into the Rio Grande.) That water wouldn’t be used at the mine, but would replace water lost to the river due to groundwater pumping.

According to Gordon’s letter, that 15-year lease “would not come close to remedying the immediate and long term depletions” to the river and the reservoir.

“We’re in a drought, we understand that we all need to manage water, and we think the operating agreement has done a good job in managing the water that’s available from the project,” he said, referring to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project, which delivers water stored in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs to southern New Mexico and Texas.

“When New Mexico sued the two districts and the U.S. over the operating agreement, that’s when Texas decided we had to go to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I feel like we had no choice.”

No end in sight to drying

In the Middle Rio Grande south of Socorro, about 17 miles of the river are currently dry, at a time of year when the channel should be full of snowmelt and spring flows. Water managers anticipate the drying will expand north, reaching Albuquerque this summer.

“We are working closely with our partners to do everything we can to keep this stretch wet as long as we can,” said Mary Carlson, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office.

“The extreme difficulty will come when MRGCD stops or curtails regular operations and is operating strictly with P&P water for the Pueblos,” Carlson said, referring to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and “prior and paramount” water the federal government delivers to tribes along the Rio Grande.

“Our modeling shows that could happen as early as the end of June or early July,” she said. “But we’re hopeful that with the help of some summer storms and close coordination with our partnering agencies, we might be able to push that back further to mid-August.”

Additionally, water managers anticipate New Mexico will enter Article 7 conditions on the Rio Grande in May.

Under the Rio Grande Compact, New Mexico cannot store water in upstream reservoirs if Rio Grande Project storage drops below 400,000 acre-feet in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs.

NM Political Report reached out to the public information officers for both the Office of the State Engineer and the Office of the Attorney General, seeking comment on Gordon’s letter.

Office of the Attorney General Spokesman James Hallinan sent an emailed statement. “The New Mexico Attorney General takes very seriously New Mexico’s ability to meet its Compact obligations. The Office of the Attorney General has reviewed Mr. Gordon’s letter, and is working both with the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission to assess whether, if approved, the proposed permit would impact Rio Grande surface flows or New Mexico’s Compact compliance obligations,” Hallinan wrote. “The Attorney General is also working with the OSE and ISC to ensure that actions related to groundwater permitting do not adversely affect New Mexico’s litigation position in the Texas v. New Mexico case.”

Hallinan also noted that the permit application in question is not “in the process of being approved,” but rather is “in the process of being evaluated, with these concerns and others in mind.”

Consistent with the agency’s past actions under Blaine, the public information officer for the Office of the State Engineer did not respond to NM Political Report.

To read all of our coverage of Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado: https://nmpoliticalreport.com/series/texas-v-new-mexico-scotus/

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List, a nonprofit that supports women candidates and reproductive rights, endorsed seven incumbents facing general election opponents in New Mexico legislative elections. All…
Equality New Mexico endorses 15 legislative candidates

Equality New Mexico endorses 15 legislative candidates

A New Mexico-based LGBTQ rights organization endorsed 15 candidates for state House and Senate seats for the 2024 elections.  Marshall Martinez, executive director of…
Lujan Grisham pocket vetoes two bills

Lujan Grisham pocket vetoes two bills

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pocket vetoed two bills the legislature passed this legislative session: one changing the Cybersecurity Act and the other concerning law…
Feds announce final renewable energy rule for public lands

Feds announce final renewable energy rule for public lands

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced a final renewable energy rule Thursday that is expected to pave the way for increased wind, solar…
Heinrich co-sponsors legislation to address PFAS in private wells

Heinrich co-sponsors legislation to address PFAS in private wells

About 13 percent of New Mexico’s population relies solely on private wells for drinking water and this removes a level of health security. For…
EPA announces new drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals

EPA announces new drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced drinking water standards on Wednesday that are intended to protect Americans from contamination from PFAS chemicals. This is…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee discussed a potential constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the governor’s executive powers. The committee approved…
How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an 1864 abortion ban is enforceable, throwing another state bordering New Mexico into the situation of…
The status of the lawsuit New Mexico joined to remove FDA restrictions to mifepristone

The status of the lawsuit New Mexico joined to remove FDA restrictions to mifepristone

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers the future of access to the abortion medication, mifepristone, another lawsuit against the FDA that would expand access…
Senators introduce legislation to aid abortion providers

Senators introduce legislation to aid abortion providers

Sen. Martin Heinrih and other Senate colleagues introduced abortion rights legislation into the U.S. Senate on Thursday. The Abortion Care Capacity Enhancement and Support…
How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an 1864 abortion ban is enforceable, throwing another state bordering New Mexico into the situation of…
The status of the lawsuit New Mexico joined to remove FDA restrictions to mifepristone

The status of the lawsuit New Mexico joined to remove FDA restrictions to mifepristone

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers the future of access to the abortion medication, mifepristone, another lawsuit against the FDA that would expand access…
Senators introduce legislation to aid abortion providers

Senators introduce legislation to aid abortion providers

Sen. Martin Heinrih and other Senate colleagues introduced abortion rights legislation into the U.S. Senate on Thursday. The Abortion Care Capacity Enhancement and Support…
Politics Newsletter: Early and absentee voting

Politics Newsletter: Early and absentee voting

Good morning fellow political junkies! Early and absentee voting for the June 4 New Mexico primary begins in about a month. The nonprofit election…
San Juan County, Navajo Nation settle redistricting case

San Juan County, Navajo Nation settle redistricting case

The Navajo Nation and San Juan County reached an agreement Monday about commission districts after the tribe alleged that its members were not adequately…
MIT ranks NM elections most well-run in the U.S.

MIT ranks NM elections most well-run in the U.S.

New Mexico’s 2022 election was ranked most well-run in the country by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Election Data and Science Lab’s Elections Performance Index.…
What the low unemployment rates for months means for NM’s economy

What the low unemployment rates for months means for NM’s economy

Post-pandemic, New Mexico has had an extended run of low unemployment rates. New Mexico’s unemployment rate has remained stable at 4.0 percent since October…
Feds announce final renewable energy rule for public lands

Feds announce final renewable energy rule for public lands

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced a final renewable energy rule Thursday that is expected to pave the way for increased wind, solar…
How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an 1864 abortion ban is enforceable, throwing another state bordering New Mexico into the situation of…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report