Western states could settle feud over beleaguered Rio Grande

The fight between Texas and New Mexico over the management of one of the longest rivers in North America could be nearing an end

The fight between Texas and New Mexico over the management of one of the longest rivers in North America could be nearing an end as a date to resume the trial has been put off pending negotiations aimed at settling the years-long case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced Tuesday that a special master appointed by the court cleared the way for ongoing negotiations and set a date in July for a status update.

The Supreme Court would have to approve any agreement reached by the states. In the case of an impasse, the trial would continue later this year.

“We assembled the best legal and scientific team in the nation to disprove that our farmers and our communities owed billions in damages to Texas, and we are now on the cusp of an exciting historic settlement agreement that will protect New Mexico water for generations to come,” Balderas said in a statement.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the negotiations or a possible settlement.

The battle over the Rio Grande has become a multimillion-dollar case in a region where water supplies are dwindling due to increased demand along with drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change.

The river through stretches of New Mexico marked record low flows again this year, resulting in some farmers voluntarily fallowing fields to help the state meet downstream obligations mandated by water-sharing compacts that date back decades.

Texas has argued that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is reducing the river’s flow and cutting into how much water makes it across the border. New Mexico argues that it has been shorted on its share of the river.

The first phase of trial was completed last fall, with testimony from farmers, hydrologists, irrigation managers and others. More technical testimony was expected to be part of the next phase.

A robust start to the monsoon season has given the Rio Grande somewhat of a reprieve after state and federal water managers had warned that stretches of the river closer to Albuquerque would likely go dry this summer as New Mexico's mega-drought continues.

Tricia Snyder, the interim wild rivers program director for the group WildEarth Guardians, said policymakers need to fundamentally rethink how to manage and value river systems.

“Like many river basins throughout the American West, we are approaching a crisis point,” she said. “Climate change is throwing into sharp relief the cracks in western water management and policy and the unsustainable water allocation included in that.”

Snyder and others have said that status quo has resulted in water resources being tapped out in the West and that all users — from cities and industry to farmers and Native American tribes — will need a seat at the table during future discussions on how to live within a river’s means.

The latest federal map shows about three-quarters of the western U.S. are dealing with some level of drought. That is less than three months ago. But federal agriculture officials reported Tuesday that weekly rainfall accumulations for several locations were still well below average.

In New Mexico, the driest areas were on the eastern side of the state, where precipitation has totaled 25% of normal or less. That has affected cotton and hay crops as well as cattle and sheep herds.

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