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.
The Rio Grande looks significantly different today than it did just a couple of months ago, as arid conditions led to drying in the Albuquerque area. Water managers are teaming up with fish biologists in preparation for the river to dry and to work to mitigate the impacts on the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Meanwhile, irrigators have been told to expect changes in water availability and delivery schedules. “Reclamation and our partners continue to coordinate closely to manage every drop of water for multiple purposes. In the last two decades, Reclamation has leased just under 500,000 acre-feet of water to supplement flows through the Middle Rio Grande for endangered and threatened species, which, at times, also increased inflow to Elephant Butte Reservoir,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler said in a press release.
After a wet start of the year, drought conditions are returning to New Mexico. A seasonal outlook from the National Integrated Drought Information System indicates that the drought conditions will likely develop over most of the state and the drought conditions that currently exist in portions of the state will persist over the next three months. NIDIS released the seasonal outlook on Thursday. As of Thursday, about 37 percent of the state is not experiencing any drought or abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor and 18 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions.
Returning drought conditions come amid what could be a late monsoon season and above normal July temperatures. State Engineer Mike Hamman told the Interstate Stream Commission that the heat wave and late monsoon could move New Mexico “more in the direction of severe drought conditions.”
However, he said, the substantial snowpack over the winter has helped the rivers.
A special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court says that an agreement reached by Texas, Colorado and New Mexico regarding Rio Grande water is permissible under the interstate compact. Furthermore, Judge Michael Melloy, the court-appointed special master, found that the United States, which has opposed the agreement, should not be able to block the settlement agreement. Melloy filed his third interim report with the U.S. Supreme Court this week. In the filing, Melloy outlines the history of the Rio Grande Compact and questions that have arisen since the states entered into the compact in the 1930s. He writes that the proposed consent decree clarifies how much water Texas should receive and how much New Mexico is entitled to use downstream of Elephant Butte Reservoir, but it does not purport to answer all the questions surrounding Compact rights, duties, and compliance.
Ana Reza has served as bridge chaplain for the Rio Grande Borderland Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande for about three years. The bridge chaplain moves back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico to greet incoming asylum seekers or immigrants seeking legal entry into the U.S.
“I do want people to know how grateful we are in everything we’ve done so far and we look forward to build new relationships and to continue to build the new relationships we have now,” Reza said. “The need is there.”
Sometimes Reza sees up to 900 people a day coming across the border. “It’s a lot of work. Pray for us that we be able to continue to provide a safe space because if it wasn’t for the shelters, Border Patrol would just drop them off at the airport and we see how that’s going,” Reza said.
Groundwater provides an important source of irrigation for farmers in southern New Mexico, but Texas alleges that New Mexico’s use of groundwater below Elephant Butte reservoir has reduced surface water in the Rio Grande that is available for farmers downstream.
Texas filed a lawsuit in 2013 before the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico has violated the Rio Grande Compact. This week, special master Judge Michael Melloy heard witness testimony and opening arguments during the first week of a virtual trial. Melloy is tasked with compiling a report for the U.S. Supreme Court. The virtual section of the trial will be followed by an in-person section in the spring in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in March.
Related: Change up: SCOTUS changes special master on Rio Grande water battle
The United States has intervened in the case, arguing that New Mexico has failed to administer the groundwater use and that failure threatens not only the compact but also the 1906 treaty agreement with Mexico. This treaty requires the United States to provide Mexico with up to 60,000 acre-feet of water annually.
In late August, San Juan Watershed Group Coordinator Alyssa Richmond reached out across the San Juan River using a long pole as it flowed through the Fruitland area and scooped up water. This water was transferred into a bottle that was capped to be sent to a lab in Florida where it will be analyzed to see how much bacteria like E. coli is coming from human waste. Human waste can lead to high levels of E. coli in rivers and the section of the San Juan River where the watershed group collected samples is listed as impaired for the bacteria. That means if people were to ingest the raw water it could make them sick. E. coli is one of the top three causes of water impairment in New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Environment Department’s 2020-2022 integrated report, and agencies throughout the state are working to address the bacteria contamination.
E. coli in the water can come from numerous sources, including leaking septic tanks, livestock, wildlife and pets.
Efforts are underway on both the San Juan River in northwest New Mexico and the Rio Grande in Albuquerque to test how much E. coli is coming from human waste.
Recent rains have brought some relief to Elephant Butte reservoir in southern New Mexico, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is still preparing for low levels that have not been seen since the 1950s. Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the BOR, said three decades of drought conditions where dry years have not been offset by multiple years of good precipitation have had a negative impact on reservoirs throughout the state—and Elephant Butte is no exception. Elephant Butte provides the state with a wide range of economic benefits from attracting tourists to providing farmers and ranchers with irrigation water. Located north of Truth or Consequences in Sierra County, the state’s largest reservoir stores water for southern New Mexico and Texas and is an important component of the Rio Grande Compact. As of Tuesday, the reservoir was at just 7.3 percent of capacity.
Albuquerque residents coping with the COVID-19 pandemic have flocked to the Rio Grande this spring and summer in droves, said John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. “What we’re seeing in Albuquerque is stunning. People are in the river in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Fleck told NM Political Report. “People are out wading in the river, splashing around, playing, setting up family picnics on the emerging sand banks.”
That fun may soon come to an abrupt end. For the first time in decades, Albuquerque is facing a dry Rio Grande.
Holtec International was in the news last month when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission denied requests from some groups to hold an additional hearing over the company’s license to build an interim storage site in southeastern New Mexico to hold nuclear waste from commercial power plants. The Camden, N.J.-based company is also hoping the NRC will allow it to buy a closed nuclear power plant in the Garden State so “it can decommission it and gain control over an almost $1 billion decommissioning fund,” according to a May 8 story from the Associated Press.
ProPublica and WNYC have also been looking into the company’s activities. In a story published today, Nancy Solomon and Jeff Pillets report that the company “gave a false answer about being prohibited from working with a federal agency in sworn statements made to win $260 million in taxpayer assistance for a new plant in Camden.”
Also, according to the story:
Holtec’s new factory in Camden is part of a resurgence for the poverty-stricken city pushed by South Jersey Democratic boss George E. Norcross III, who is an unpaid member of Holtec’s board.Norcross’ brother Philip is managing partner at the law firm that represented the company in its EDA application, Parker McCay.Sheehan worked closely with Philip Norcross on the Holtec matter, according to the emails obtained by WNYC and ProPublica. The law firm’s work on behalf of several Camden projects is now under scrutiny.