Posted: Mar 20, 2014 3:16 PM
Updated: Mar 20, 2014 3:17 PM
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) Top water managers from New Mexico, Colorado and Texas heard Thursday from a steady stream of federal experts that the Rio Grande has been stretched beyond its limits, leaving little for farmers, cities and endangered fish to fight over as the drought continues.
Despite indications from members of the Rio Grande Compact Commission that they were willing to work together to solve some of the region's water problems, the tension was high as New Mexico State Engineer Scott Verhines pressed for more communication and cooperation regarding the legal battle between his state and Texas over the river's management.
"We have a lot of really smart folks in the room, some of the most sophisticated water managers in the West. But I also want to say I'm generally disappointed in all of us, that we find ourselves in this place again," Verhines said.
As New Mexico's top water official, he said it would be better to use the state's resources for solving the problem rather than litigating. However, he added that New Mexico is still ready to fight for its citizens and water users if that's the only path available.
"We're confident in our facts and our practices and our position," he said.
Stuart Somach, an attorney representing Texas in the case, said after Thursday's meeting that Texas is trying to defend itself and protect what it believes belongs to its citizens. The fight over the Rio Grande is not as simple as solving technical issues along the river, he said.
"The only way to actually solve the problem is to allow the court to tell us who is right and then we can take a look at the technical aspects of this thing and figure out how to remediate the wrong that exists," Somach said.
Texas took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court more than a year ago, asking that New Mexico stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the river could flow south to farmers and residents in El Paso.
The federal government has also weighed in. In its motion to intervene in the case, the government contends that groundwater pumping in New Mexico is tapping the shallow aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the Rio Grande and flow to Texas.
New Mexico officials are concerned that including groundwater in the calculations the federal government makes in operating the Rio Grande Project the massive system of canals and dams that deliver water to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas could violate its rights to manage underground sources of water.
It could be years before the court makes a decision, but some experts say the case could set precedent when it comes to state rights in the drought-stricken West.
The river is governed by a decades-old compact that spells out how much of the Rio Grande the three states must share.
Verhines said New Mexico is meeting its obligations under the compact, but Somach argued that obligation involves more than putting water in Elephant Butte, the largest storage reservoir along the Rio Grande.
"We believe it includes not taking that water and intercepting it before it gets to Texas. That's the fundamental nature of the dispute," he said.
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