You can’t cut water with a knife, and dividing water rights has always been just about as hard to do. However lawyers and politicians write down their contracts, compacts, conventions and agreements, getting everyone involved to live up to what’s on paper is often like trying to ride out a flash flood on a paper boat.
I mean the water itself won’t stand still. Sometimes you measure it and there’s a lot; sometimes you miss your water when it looks like it‘s gone. So when you’re going sharesies, how much is enough can be hard to adjudicate.
And what water is worth is always moving around, too. Mostly that relates to how much water you have, but how much value you can get from your water is also subject to drastic change. Green chilies are worth one thing, pecans another, and how ‘bout water for a growing population to drink?
The waters of the Rio Grande, from its sources in the mountains of Colorado, along its length from mountains to deserts in New Mexico, through its service as the national border separating Texas from Mexico all the way down to the Gulf, have been divvied up since 1906. That’s when the US and Mexico drew up their first convention. The 3 states started compacting in 1938, revised in ’48, and argued ever since.
The argument got really complicated in the drought years of the 1950s when surface flow from the river almost dried up. Farmer and ranchers drilled more than 1000 wells and started pumping ground water as a substitute.
When serious drought returned in 2003, hydrological science had complicated things. The water sucked out of the ground, it was now obvious, reduced the water in the Rio Grande. Fears that both river and underground sources might not sustain a future set off a new round of negotiations and a new deal to protect and share the waters of the Rio Grande signed by two local entities…the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in New Mexico and the El Paso County Water Improvement District #4 in Texas. The Federal Buro of Reclamation was part of this agreement, but neither the states of New Mexico or Texas was.
Within a few years, both states were in court with New Mexico arguing, Texas was taking too much river water, and Texas counter-suing that those groundwater wells in New Mexico were robbing Texans of their fair share. Subsequently, the Reclamation Bureau joined the suit, agreeing with Texas, that those New Mexico wells were making it hard to honor America’s obligations to Mexico.
Earlier this month, part of the case was argued before the US Supreme Court, the part in which the State of New Mexico asks the Bureau of Reclamation, who asked you, and in a sense, also asks who asked us into this case…we never signed the agreement between local water districts.
The oral arguments before the Supreme Court were just the first round of what promises to be a long judicial process.
Laura Paskus is an environmental reporter with long experience in New Mexico and the Southwest. She currently files regular reports for the Environmental Project of the New Mexico Political Report and is writing a book that’s based on a year-long project, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” done for New Mexico In Depth. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Ms. Magazine, Indian Country Today, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, and High Country News, where she also served as Assistant Editor.