Last week, I discussed the fight over water entitlement from the Rio Grande River between Texas and the country of Mexico. In the severe drought that the Southwestern United States currently faces, there is not enough water to supply fully all of the water users’ needs in the region. As such, squabbles over water entitlement have cropped up over who should get what, and what end users will benefit from the tight water supplies. However, Texas and Mexico are not the only two jurisdictions that can claim water from the Rio Grande River. Although the Rio Grande River forms part of the Texas – Mexico border, the River begins in Colorado and flows through New Mexico. New Mexico relies on water entitlement from the River. In the drought conditions that the region faces, there is also tension between Texas and New Mexico over water entitlements.
Like Texas, New Mexico faces the same critical water shortages, mostly because they rely on the same river for a significant portion of their water resources: the Rio Grande River. And like the situation in Texas, the drought has not released its strong grip on New Mexico either. The prolonged period without rainfall has left crops in jeopardy and caused water resources in towns and cities to be stretched to the limit. According to an August 8th article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, the New Mexico Environment Department has identified nearly 300 drinking water systems in the State that they consider vulnerable. The Department identified these water systems mostly because they rely on one source of water to supply the system, and are the most vulnerable in drought conditions.
The State’s concerns are not without precedent. In July, the town of Magdalena, New Mexico had to rely on tens of thousands of gallons of imported water after the town’s only operating well failed to produce enough water supply. State officials fear that other cities with vulnerable water systems could suffer the same fate if left unchecked. New Mexico is trying to be proactive in planning for groundwater shortages and to shore up vulnerable water systems. The State is also trying to be proactive in using its water entitlement from the Rio Grande River most effectively. However, this action is ruffling some feathers with New Mexico’s neighbor Texas, who relies on the same river and faces the same drought as New Mexico.
The fight over Rio Grande River entitlement has brought the issue between the two states to court. The dispute revolves around which parties should have control over water resources negotiated in the Rio Grande Compact. The Rio Grande Compact, signed in 1938, mandates that New Mexico send a set amount of water to the Elephant Butte Reservoir. According to a July 30th article in Climate Progress, the reservoir (which is New Mexico’s largest) currently holds about 3% of the water it held in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the region experienced a few years of plentiful rainfalls. Though the Reservoir is in New Mexico, Texas relies on its water resources. As such, Texas is arguing that New Mexico is drawing down water resources that should rightfully go to Texas.
At the heart of the dispute between New Mexico and Texas is the fact that the City of El Paso, Texas, relies on the Elephant Butte Reservoir for about 50% of its water supply. Further downstream, other cities and irrigation uses in Texas rely on the flows of the Rio Grande. Texas claims that New Mexico is unjustly drawing down the aquifer that should feed into the system. Pat Gordon, the Representative from Texas on the Rio Grande Compact Commission contends that New Mexico has drilled over 2,500 wells around the Elephant Butte Reservoir. The water from these wells goes into the New Mexican groundwater system rather than the Rio Grande River for Texas’s benefit. The courts will have to decide who has entitlement to the water, and this process likely will take years to unwind.
While the rancor and fights over who should get water entitlement continue, I think that the stories miss the fundamental issue that the region and other parts of the United States faces: In times of drought, water supplies are limited, and regions must make due with what we are given. I believe that Charles DuMars, a former University of New Mexico law professor summed it up best in a January 25th Los Angeles Times article. He said, “it’s really up to Mother Nature. If there is adequate snowpack for two or three years in a row and they can fill Elephant Butte, then it’s OK. But all the injunctions in the Supreme Court are not going to create snow.”
We certainly have no control over Mother Nature, and battles between states and interested parties will not create one new drop of water supply. In these times of challenging supply, our stakeholders and lawmakers should take on the important, albeit delicate task of determining how to most efficiently and effectively provide water resources to the most users possible considering the supply constraints. It is also a good time to enact sensible water conservation measures that protect constrained water resources while limiting the economic and social effects that invariably come with droughts.