See our entire countdown of 2021 top stories, to date, here. Gripped by decades-long drought, water managers in New Mexico faced tough choices this year, including ending the irrigation season early. The year’s water woes began in the winter, when below average snowpack, warm temperatures and dry soil conditions limited the spring runoff. On top of that, New Mexico owed water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact from previous years. In May, the Interstate Stream Commission sought federal financial support from the U.S. Department of the Interior for both long-term and short-term drought relief.
Recent storms packed the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico with healthy snow levels, and meteorologists anticipate El Niño conditions will persist through the spring. This is welcome news after last year’s dry conditions. But in the long term, forecasters and farmers still remain cautious. That’s because long-term drought has dried out the state’s soils. And reservoirs remain low, particularly on the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Chama River.
Last winter, snows didn’t come to the mountains, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande suffered from drought. In April, the river—New Mexico’s largest—was already drying south of Socorro. And over the summer, reservoir levels plummeted. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Texas, New Mexico and the U.S. government over the waters of the Rio Grande marches onward. At a meeting at the end of August, the special master assigned to the case by the Supreme Court set some new deadlines: The discovery period will close in the summer of 2020 and the case will go to trial no later than that fall.
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.