High Court Allows Feds to Join States’ Water-Rights Dispute

(CN) – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the federal government can intervene in a case brought by Texas and pursue claims that New Mexico has used more than its fair share of water from a Rio Grande reservoir.

In a case against New Mexico and Colorado over the 80-year-old Rio Grande Compact, Texas argued New Mexico’s increasing use of water from the Elephant Butte Reservoir deprives it of water apportioned to it under the deal, which governs the distribution of Rio Grande water among Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

The Rio Grande in Texas.

Uncle Sam got involved after Texas complained about New Mexico’s usage of water from the Rio Grande river basin.

Before the water reaches Texas, it first must pass through the Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir, a federal reclamation effort in Truth or Consequences, N.M., that is part of the Rio Grande Project.

Though the 1938 Rio Grande Compact governs distribution of the water in that dam, Texas said New Mexico has been steadily increasing its use.

In its bid to intervene, meanwhile, the United States claims that New Mexico’s actions have interfered with the federal government’s ability to comply with a water treaty it signed with Mexico in 1906.

The water-rights dispute is an original-jurisdiction case, meaning the lawsuit was filed directly with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Ann O’Connell told the nation’s highest court at oral arguments in January that the government has protected interests in the complex water-management scheme.

“Where the compact protects specific federal interests that are at stake in the dispute that’s been filed in this court, then we believe the United States can intervene as a plaintiff and bring claims against New Mexico that are based on that compact,” O’Connell said.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to allow the federal government to intervene in the case against New Mexico.

In a seven-page opinion penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the high court found that the government has “distinctively federal interests” in the case.

“First, the compact is inextricably intertwined with the Rio Grande Project and the downstream contracts,” Gorsuch wrote. “By the time the com­pact was executed and enacted, the United States had negotiated and approved the downstream contracts, in which it assumed a legal responsibility to deliver a certain amount of water to Texas.”

In addition, the ruling states, New Mexico has conceded that the federal government plays an integral role in the operation of the Rio Grande Compact.

Two other factors support the government’s bid to intervene, the justices found.

“Third, a breach of the compact could jeopardize the federal government’s ability to satisfy its treaty obliga­tions,” Gorsuch wrote. “Fourth, the United States has asserted its compact claims in an existing action brought by Texas, seeking substantially the same relief and without that state’s objection.”

The Supreme Court ruled that those four deciding factors, taken together, allow the U.S. to pursue its claims against New Mexico over the 1938 deal.

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to suggest whether a different result would obtain in the absence of any of the considera­tions we have outlined or in the presence of additional, countervailing considerations,” the opinion states. “The United States’s excep­tion is sustained, all other exceptions are overruled, and the case is remanded to the Special Master for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

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