Tension over Rio Grande rises with drought

03/20/2014 5:04 PM

03/21/2014 8:19 AM

The tension was high Thursday as top water managers from New Mexico, Colorado and Texas discussed the need for more communication and cooperation in legal battles over the Rio Grande’s water.

“We have a lot of really smart folks in the room, some of the most sophisticated water managers in the West. But I also want to say I’m generally disappointed in all of us, that we find ourselves in this place again,” New Mexico State Engineer Scott Verhines said at a meeting of the Rio Grande Compact Commission.

As New Mexico’s top water official, Verhines said it would be better to use state resources to solve the problem rather than litigating. But he said New Mexico is still ready to fight for its water users if that’s the only path available.

“We’re confident in our facts and our practices and our position,” he said.

Stuart Somach, an attorney for Texas, said after Thursday’s meeting that Texas is trying to defend itself and protect what it believes belongs to its residents. The fight over the Rio Grande is not as simple as solving technical issues along the river, he said.

“The only way to actually solve the problem is to allow the court to tell us who is right and then we can take a look at the technical aspects of this thing and figure out how to remediate the wrong that exists,” Somach said.

Texas took its case to the Supreme Court more than a year ago, asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the river could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso.

The federal government has also weighed in. In its motion to intervene in the case, the government contends that groundwater pumping in New Mexico is tapping the shallow aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the Rio Grande and flow to Texas.

New Mexico officials are concerned that including groundwater in the calculations that the federal government makes in operating the Rio Grande Project — the massive system of canals and dams that deliver water to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas — could violate its rights to manage underground water sources.

It could be years before the court decides, but some experts say the case might set a precedent when it comes to state rights in the drought-stricken West.

The river is governed by a decades-old compact that spells out how much of the Rio Grande the three states must share.

Verhines said New Mexico is meeting its obligations under the compact, but Somach argued that the obligations involve more than putting water in Elephant Butte, the largest storage reservoir along the Rio Grande.

“We believe it includes not taking that water and intercepting it before it gets to Texas. That’s the fundamental nature of the dispute,” he said.

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