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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...