Supreme Court Rejects Settlement in Water Dispute Between New Mexico and Texas

The federal government has concerns about New Mexico's water use on the Rio Grande.

Associated Press
The dry Rio Grande riverbed.
The dry Rio Grande riverbed.
AP Photo/Brittany Peterson

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a settlement between Western states over the management of one of North America’s longest rivers.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that the water-sharing deal between Texas and New Mexico can't go through because the federal government still has concerns about New Mexico water use on the Rio Grande, which Colorado also draws from.

New Mexico’s state engineer said it was disappointing the high court scuttled the deal recommended by a federal judge overseeing the case.

Some New Mexico lawmakers had voiced concerns about the proposed settlement, which would have meant reducing the state’s use of Rio Grande water with steps like paying farmers to leave their fields barren and making infrastructure improvements.

Attorney Samantha Barncastle with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the largest in New Mexico, greeted the ruling with pleasure and said her group hopes all the parties will go back to the settlement table and hammer out a new agreement.

Farmers in southern New Mexico have had to rely more heavily on groundwater wells over the last two decades as drought and climate change resulted in reduced flows and less water in reservoirs along the Rio Grande. Texas sued over the groundwater pumping, saying the practice was cutting into the amount of water that was ultimately delivered as part of the interstate compact.

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy had previously deemed the proposal a fair and reasonable way to resolve the conflict consistent with a decade long water-sharing agreement.

The federal government, though, lodged several objections, including that the proposal did not mandate specific water capture or use limitations within New Mexico.