A Southwest water dispute reaches the Supreme Court

Why a fight over groundwater has left farmers in New Mexico feeling stranded.

 

Southern New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley is like an island: a fertile patchwork of farm fields and groves of pecan trees surrounded by the brown Chihuahuan Desert. 

For Mesilla Valley farmers, the metaphor rings true in other ways as well. Though they live in New Mexico, the residents of the roughly 90,000-acre-area are caught between their own state and Texas. The Rio Grande water they depend on is not technically New Mexico’s water, but rather part of the water that goes to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact, a treaty ensuring that Texas, New Mexico and Colorado get their fair share of the river. New Mexico’s delivery obligation to Texas hinges on collecting enough water in Elephant Butte Reservoir, 90 miles from the Texas border and the neighboring Mesilla Valley. Unfortunately, that leaves the farmers downriver in a complicated no-man’s-land of interstate water management.

“We cringe when we hear, ‘Not one more drop to Texas,’ because that means not one more drop for us,” says Samantha Barncastle, the lawyer for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which manages and delivers irrigation water to Mesilla Valley farmers. 

After more than a decade of back-and-forth between New Mexico and Texas, the fight has finally reached the Supreme Court. The first round of oral arguments took place on Jan. 8, with a final decision expected by early spring. For the farmers, the conflict has only heightened their sense of isolation from their own state — and made the costs of poor water management in a hotter and drier West more obvious than ever.

Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico.
Sarah Tory

Built in 1916 by the Bureau of Reclamation, Elephant Butte Dam made a large-scale agricultural economy possible in New Mexico’s dry south. But disputes between states over the river continued, especially during times of drought.

The latest stems from a 2014 lawsuit filed by the state of Texas, claiming that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater, New Mexico was depleting the water destined for Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.

Farmers in the Mesilla Valley receive a yearly allocation of 36 inches of water per acre from the reservoir, as long as flows in the Rio Grande are sufficient. But in the 1950s, a severe drought curtailed that allotment. To supplement irrigation supplies, the Bureau of Reclamation encouraged local farmers to pump groundwater.

“Everyone did,” recalls Robert Faubion, a fourth-generation local farmer.

When the current drought began in 2003, farmers came to rely more on their groundwater wells, sometimes receiving almost 80 percent of their yearly irrigation needs from the aquifer. (The region’s towns and cities, including Las Cruces, rely 100 percent on groundwater.) According to the U.S. Geological Survey Mesilla Basin Monitoring Program, between 2003 and 2005 the Mesilla Valley aquifer declined by up to 5 feet and held steady until 2011, when it began dropping sharply again. In some places, groundwater levels fell by 18 feet.

As the situation worsened, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and its longtime rival in Texas, the El Paso County Water Improvement District, agreed that the time had come to resolve their grievances. So the two agencies settled on an “operating agreement” in 2008, which required New Mexico to relinquish some of its Rio Grande water to Texas in exchange for Texas ceasing its complaints about groundwater pumping.

The signing coincided with Valentine’s Day. “We had sort of a love fest,” says Gary Esslinger, the treasurer and manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

The love lasted until 2011, when, in a surprise move, then-New Mexico Attorney General Gary King sued the irrigation district and the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 as well as the Bureau of Reclamation, arguing that the deal gave away too much of New Mexico’s water. The decision to sue one of its own irrigation districts was, to Barncastle, “incredibly strange.”

In 2014, Texas fired back with its own lawsuit against New Mexico, bringing us to today’s scenario: If the Supreme Court rules against New Mexico, the state budget will take a hit. New Mexico could owe billions of dollars in damages — on top of the $15 million already spent on legal fees — and potentially have to find additional sources of water to send to Texas, as a way to make up for its groundwater pumping.

According to Barncastle, the case is motivating stakeholders in southern New Mexico to work on a framework for better groundwater management. The impacts of climate change are adding yet another layer of uncertainty, since no one knows how weather patterns might affect water scarcity in the future.

Regardless, the outcome will have major implications, says southern New Mexico Sen. Joe Cervantes. Most of the state’s population and industry is located along the riparian corridor. “If the health of the Rio Grande is threatened, then all of those communities are put at risk,” Cervantes warned.

Correspondent Sarah Tory writes from Paonia, Colorado. She covers Utah, environmental justice and water issues.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • 9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • 57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.