A proposed settlement between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado was unveiled Monday, months after the states announced an agreement to end a nearly decade-old Supreme Court case over water from the Rio Grande, known as the Bravo. in Mexico.
The agreement would modify the 83-year-old legal basis for how the three states divide the river’s water under the Rio Grande Compact treaty. If the Supreme Court allows it, the decree would put an end to the lawsuit called Original No. 141 Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado. The case has dragged on for nine years and has cost taxpayers in New Mexico and Texas tens of millions of dollars.
Among the changes, Texas’ share of Rio Grande water would be measured at a point on the state line on an El Paso meter instead of NM’s current requirement to deliver Texas water more than 100 miles north in the Elephant Butte Reservoir.
The agreement offers a new set of calculations to determine what water is owed to farmers in southern New Mexico and those in far West Texas, and incorporates groundwater pumping into the formulas.
Finally, it also provides terms for New Mexico and Texas to handle disputes over over- or under-deliveries of water from the Rio Grande.
To provide water for those deliveries, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer could shut off wells or use other limits, such as paying farmers to set aside land from agriculture to save irrigation water, court documents show.
In affidavits attached to the proposed deal, top New Mexico and Texas water officials urged the Supreme Court to accept the proposal.
Bobby Skov, the Rio Grande compact commissioner for Texas, called the deal “fair” and “consistent with the compact.”
State engineer Mike Hamman, who is also New Mexico’s commissioner for the Rio Grande Compact, said the agreement resolves longstanding issues between the two states and offers clear instructions on how to comply with the agreements.
“I anticipate that the consent decree will help states avoid future conflicts,” Hamman wrote.
A key change in the document includes water transfers between the New Mexico and Texas irrigation districts to balance years in which New Mexico pumping or diversions cause not enough Rio Grande water to reach the state line.
If the state does not meet the new delivery requirements for three consecutive years, the agreement requires the state to send additional water from the New Mexico Irrigation District to the Texas Irrigation District.
In order to provide water to make up any shortfalls, Hamman offered seven bullet points in his letter of support for the deal.
Hamman said the NM Office of the State Engineer could stop the pumping of groundwater; monitor groundwater pumping, purchase water rights to remove groundwater wells, or temporarily fallow farmland; increase conservation in both municipal and agricultural use, or attempt to import water into the Lower Rio Grande.
Hamman warned that the state office will enforce well closures if voluntary or compensated measures don’t work.
New Mexico is still embroiled in the lengthy court process that began in 1996 to determine the legal order of water rights between Caballo Reservoir and the state line for farmers, municipalities, businesses, and the federal government.
As for the next steps, a hearing on the proposed decree is tentatively scheduled for February 2023.
How did we get to this situation?
The Supreme Court case was sparked by decades of litigation over the Lower Rio Grande, the region between Caballo Reservoir and where the river often evaporates above Fort Quitman, about 90 miles along the Texas-Mexico border. .
In 2014, Texas filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico’s groundwater pumping from under Elephant Butte illegally captured Rio Grande water promised to Texas.
The proposed settlement is the product of months of confidential negotiations between the parties to the case: New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and the federal government. Discussions included input from affected organizations such as agricultural associations, the two regional irrigation districts, the cities of Las Cruces and El Paso, New Mexico State University, and Albuquerque and El Paso Water Utilities.
In previous filings, the federal government and El Paso’s main irrigation district have asked the special expert overseeing the case to dismiss the proposed decree because it was the result of an incomplete agreement and makes concessions that states cannot enforce, according to legal documents.
Last week, Judge Michael Melloy struck down the federal government’s arguments that the proposed deal should be kept secret and ordered most of the documents made public.
The US objections to the proposed executive order remain sealed and are not public at this time.