ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is going on offense in a long-running battle with Texas and the U.S. government over management of one of the longest rivers in North America as a team of scientists and experts prepare to spend the next year modeling the flow of the Rio Grande and its relationship to groundwater.
Attorney General Hector Balderas says the state is in a "historic fist fight" that has its roots in water policy decisions made nearly a century ago, when economic and climate conditions along the river valley were very different.
Stretches of the Rio Grande went dry last year as the previous winter resulted in little runoff and record low water flows. Federal water managers worked out a deal with municipalities to keep the river flowing through the Albuquerque stretch and limits kicked in that prevented the storage of water in upstream reservoirs to ensure enough water flowed south to Texas.
Forecasters caution that spring runoff could be weak this year, and Balderas says he is seeking a solution that will keep New Mexicans whole for a few generations.
"I have to come up with a modern compact, a modern operating agreement that represents all New Mexicans and that's really difficult," he said. "But I'm shooting straight will all these water users. I don't want to pre-settle or litigate in a way that shortchanges or pits one New Mexican against another."
Balderas this week provided members of a key legislative committee with an update on the legal battle that has been simmering before the U.S. Supreme Court since 2013.
Texas is asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the Rio Grande could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river and flow to Texas.
Arguing that it is meeting its obligations, New Mexico last year filed counterclaims alleging that Texas is violating the interstate compact governing the Rio Grande by allowing unrestricted groundwater pumping and other diversions on its side of the border. This has been a growing concern in the valley and to the east in the Permian Basin, where an oil boom has spurred even more demand for water.
Balderas contends that groundwater pumping in Texas is depleting surface water that has been delivered to that state before it can ever be used.
"It's causing Texas to demand more and more water," he said. "Their appetite for water is not going to cease so regulatory framework or a potential new settlement is actually a new opportunity for us to put New Mexico consumers in a better position."
Texas has denied the allegations and is asking the court to dismiss New Mexico's claims.
Briefings are scheduled next month and arguments will be made before a special master later this spring. It'll likely be more than a year before the case goes to trial and even that is expect to take at least four months given the complexity of the issue.
One of the questions that could be answered is whether the compact has any bearing on the use of groundwater given its hydrogeological connection to surface water. Such a ruling could affect states' rights, as New Mexico requires permits for any groundwater use but Texas rules provide the right for landowners to pump and capture whatever is available beneath their property regardless of the effects on neighboring wells.
Balderas' office is seeking $4.5 million for the next fiscal year to pay for the ongoing litigation and the team of hydrologists, geologists and historians who will be looking more closely at pumping in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico and how the river's flows might behave under different weather conditions.
"We're fighting about less and less water," the attorney general said. "As a sovereign state, we have a right to the complete science and accounting of the water."