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.
At the end of last year, a state judge chipped away at a company’s plans to reopen a long-abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro. On Dec. 28, New Mexico Third Judicial District Court Judge James J. Wechsler found that most of the water rights claimed by the company are not valid. New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) planned to use groundwater rights that two men purchased after operations were abandoned at Copper Flat Mine in 1982. William Frost and Harris Gray, along with NMCC and its attorneys, tried to show that those rights were still valid, even though the water hadn’t been put to use over the past four decades—or even when the mine operated.
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.
Joseph Cervantes is the fourth Democrat to declare a 2018 run for governor. An attorney with a background in architecture, Cervantes has served in the state legislature representing Las Cruces for 16 years, first in the House of Representatives before winning an election in the Senate in 2013. Cervantes is considered a moderate Democrat from his time in the Legislature. He even once attempted to oust then-Speaker Ben Lujan with a coalition of Republicans and some Democrats. NM Political Report caught up with Cervantes just days into his campaign office to speak about how he wants to approach the state’s highest political office.
This spring has already been a busy one for water managers. The Rio Grande and its acequias and irrigation ditches are currently full and forecasters predict more snow for the mountains this weekend. Unlike many years over the past two decades, when water managers wondered how to spread out water deliveries to farmers and growers so everyone makes it through the growing season, this year the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) is watching for a different problem, one born of high water levels—the pressure on levees. “It’s feast or famine,” said Mike Hamman, chief engineer of the district, which delivers water to irrigators from Cochiti dam to Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. It’s also election season in the district.
Turning off I-25, south of Truth or Consequences, drivers head west through long, open stretches of creosote bush and honey mesquite. On stormy days the scent of rain on that Chihuahuan desert scrub sneaks its way into cars and trucks, even through closed windows. It’s only a 30-minute drive from the interstate to Hillsboro, but the trip is reminder that small communities in the southwestern part of the state still have a close relationship with the land—and with history. Only about 100 people live in Hillsboro, which today includes a smattering of houses and galleries, a post office and the General Store and Cafe on the south side of Percha Creek. But at its peak in the 1880s, the town was more than 10 times that size.