Parties pledge new thinking to solve interstate water fight
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Nov. 15, 2017
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Farmers in southern New Mexico, water policy experts, lawyers and others are all working behind the scenes to craft possible solutions that could help to end a lengthy battle with Texas over management of the Rio Grande.
The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and all sides say the stakes are high given uncertainty about the future sustainability of water supplies throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
The New Mexico Attorney General's Office, Las Cruces city officials and agricultural interests provided state lawmakers with an update Tuesday.
Lawyers involved in the case say the court could schedule arguments early next year, but New Mexico is still open to settlement talks. Separately, the farmers, municipalities and commercial users that would be affected by a ruling have been meeting regularly to build a framework for a possible settlement.
Details of what that might look like are under wraps because of a court-issued confidentiality order.
Samantha Barncastle, an attorney representing the irrigation district that serves farmers from Elephant Butte south to the U.S.-Mexico border, said there's no question groundwater will continue to be relied upon into the future to protect everyone's access.
She said the parties are looking at managing the aquifer in ways New Mexico has never seen before. That could include more flexibility and policies aimed at avoiding the permanent fallowing of farmland.
"All we can say is we're exploring options," she told lawmakers. "We are imposing on ourselves what we don't think otherwise could be done. We're very much outside the box and that's where these problems will be solved."
Texas took its case to the Supreme Court in 2013, 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.
In dry years when there's not enough water in the river, chile and onion farmers and pecan growers in southern New Mexico are forced to rely on wells to keep their crops and trees alive. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas.
New Mexico has argued in court documents that it's meeting delivery obligations to Texas.
The Rio Grande is one of North America's longest rivers, stretching from southern Colorado to Mexico and irrigating more than 3,100 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) of farmland along the way. Several major cities also rely on the river's water supply.
Depending on the outcome of the case, New Mexico could be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages. The New Mexico attorney general's office plans to ask the Legislature for $1.5 million to handle the Rio Grande litigation for the next year.
Tania Maestas with the attorney general's office said the willingness of New Mexico water users to work together could lead to a "dream settlement."
"We find it to be extremely beneficial when you have the actual parties that are impacted giving you feedback, saying we're willing to do this. That's huge," she said.