JudicialStatewide NewsTexas, New Mexico, and Colorado Reach Settlement on Water Use in the Lower Rio Grande River Basin

The compact over which Texas sued New Mexico was first ratified by the three states' legislatures in 1939.
November 8, 2022
Years of litigation and negotiation have concluded as the States of Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado reached an agreement related to apportionment of the Lower Rio Grande River Basin — the result of a decade-long suit that stems from an agreement made before World War II.

The Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG) announced Thursday that a settlement had been reached between the three states to delineate how much water interests each state’s interests could use. The details of the settlement have not yet been released.

“I’ve continued to fight to ensure our state has the legal access to the Rio Grande River that we’re owed, and that we can responsibly use the river’s resources to limit the damage of droughts and help Texas farmers,” said Attorney General Paxton. “This agreement helps protect the resources of all the states involved, and I encourage the federal government to reconsider its objection to this important agreement.”

The litigation reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 with Texas suing New Mexico over groundwater pumping in one of the regions established by a compact ratified by the states long ago. That siphoning, Texas alleged, negatively affected the amount of the basin’s water that would reach the Lone Star State and its citizens.

The Rio Grande Compact of 1938 apportioned water use based on regions — the San Luis Valley in Colorado; a New Mexico-only region from the northern state line down to the Elephant Butte Reservoir; and the New Mexico-Texas region below that reservoir.

The Texan Tumbler

(Photo courtesy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.)

The compact arose out of a tri-state dispute decades in the making as agricultural interests in the various states grappled for control over the limited water supply.

“Given the nature of the Rio Grande, seasonal water supply shortages were neither rare nor unexpected, and storage was essential to a reliable irrigation supply in the Upper Rio Grande Basin,” reads a 2001 law review of the compact. This led to negotiations with Mexico over water usage that were completed in 1896.

A decade later, the Elephant Butte Dam would be constructed with an agreement in place to deliver Mexico 60,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir each year through the Rio Grande River. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water.

But as the years went on, the inter-state dispute festered. Ultimately, the compact finalized between the states set forth 17 different stipulations on the use and apportionment of the millions of acre-footage of water in the Rio Grande River Basin.

It was ratified by the three states’ respective legislatures in 1939.

Seventy-five years later, Texas sued New Mexico for siphoning off water supply in violation of the compact.

After moving through the court system, the modern-day lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, a challenge against the federal government’s ability to intercede in the case. The court ruled that the U.S. government could join the lawsuit, and the substance of the dispute was remanded to a lower court for hashing out.

This case was also notable for falling under the original jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court; before Marbury v. Madison established judicial review, the court’s jurisdiction was limited to only that listed in Article III, to consider disputes between states and a few other limited scenarios. Since Marbury, the court has considered a far wider range of cases than it otherwise would — more than was originally intended.

The U.S. government has objected to the settlement, according to the OAG, which hopes the “special master” — a third party appointed by a court to assist with a case, a mediator of sorts — will approve the settlement. The OAG also states its hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will deliver its approval.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.