“Buy and dry” was a phrase heard often during the Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting held July 30, in T or C. This is a process by which the state buys water rights from land owners in order to fulfill water allocations to other stakeholders. Water is sent downstream and productive land is fallowed. This is the scenario irrigators in the lower Rio Grande may face if New Mexico loses Texas vs New Mexico and Colorado.
Legislators were briefed on the status of the lawsuit by Samantha Barncastle, attorney for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District; John Utton, attorney for New Mexico State University; Jim Brockman, attorney for the City of Las Cruces; and Tyson Achen, a board member for the New Mexico Pecan Growers. The lawsuit is currently being considered by the Supreme Court after the United States was granted standing earlier this year. Texas vs New Mexico and Colorado, came about as a result of a suit filed in 2011, when then Attorney General for New Mexico, Gary King, sued Texas over a 2008 operating agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, EBID and Texas water users. In 2013, Texas counter-sued claiming that New Mexico farmers pumping groundwater in the lower Rio Grande decreased the amount of water available to send downstream.
Fearing a loss to Texas, lower Rio Grande farmers are looking for a soft landing to avoid the curtailment of groundwater pumping that would be devastating to their livelihoods. In his testimony, Achen expressed a concern that the Federal Government was intending to federalize ground water through their involvement in the lawsuit. Chairperson Senator Joseph Cervantes echoed this concern with his perception that the United States government has aligned itself with Texas saying “If you’re an attorney and you’re lined up against the federal government and you’re in the United States Supreme Court, it’s a little rough.”
Other presenters included EBID Manager Gary Esslinger who gave a history of the project that serves approximately 8,000 farmers between the dam and the state line. Earl Conway, Conservation Director of the New Mexico BASS Nation, also presented a plan for increased water in the reservoir for recreational and wildlife habitat purposes. He argued the Butte would be better if:
There was a multi-year drought contingency plan
- Reservoir storage didn’t fall below 100,000 acre-feet.
- The reservoir didn’t drop or rise more than 6 inches a day
- Upriver areas were accessible and usable for OHV recreation & rearing fish
- Sediments were no longer filling and killing the reservoir
- A comprehensive life extension project was developed and implemented
- Recreation was acknowledged and funded by Reclamation as a reservoir mission
Legislators then took a tour of the dam. The next day they heard from representatives of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District about levee projects and compliance efforts with the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973.