Things are complicated. Here’s a timeline to help you keep track of the Supreme Court lawsuit New Mexico is facing on the Lower Rio Grande. 1902 – The United States Reclamation Service (now the US Bureau of Reclamation) is established to study and develop water resources in Western states. 1906 – The United States and Mexico sign a convention to ensure the Rio Grande’s waters are shared equitably between the two countries. 1906 – Construction begins on dams and canals on the Rio Grande.
WASHINGTON, DC—On a frigid Monday morning in the nation’s capital, as most of the press corps turned its attention toward a water dispute between Florida and Georgia, attorneys for New Mexico and Colorado tried to fend off the ability of the United States government to protect its water interests on the Rio Grande. Attorneys for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the states of Texas, Colorado and New Mexico presented oral arguments to the US Supreme Court. The issue at hand is whether the United States has the right to intervene in the longstanding interstate water dispute under the Rio Grande Compact. Each attorney had 10 to 20 minutes to weigh in on whether the federal government has a right to join the case based on the interstate compact the three states signed to divvy up the Rio Grande’s waters. In 2013, Texas sued its two northern neighbors, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater, which is hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande, New Mexico wasn’t sending its legal share of water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.
Almost 100 people packed into the Catron County Courthouse in Reserve, N.M. last week for a hearing about plans to pump groundwater from beneath the Plains of San Agustin in southwestern New Mexico. Augustin* Plains Ranch, LLC wants to pump 54,000 acre-feet of water—more than 17 billion gallons—each year from the aquifer and pipe it to commercial or municipal water customers hundreds of miles away. The state has rejected similar applications from the company twice. Now, a third application is pending before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. The final decision will lie with the State Engineer, a position currently held by Tom Blaine, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez three years ago.
From Colorado to Mexico, communities siphon and spread water from the Rio Grande. For about a century, every drop of that water has been divvied up among cities and farmers. It’s not unusual to stand alongside an irrigation ditch in New Mexico and hear someone complain that too much water is flowing to Texas. But, in fact, Texas stands on solid ground in its lawsuit against New Mexico over the Rio Grande, oral arguments for which are scheduled for January in the U.S. Supreme Court. If New Mexico loses, southern farmers will take a hit—and so will the state budget.
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.
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.