Arizona, California, and Nevada aren’t the only Western states to share a river. A couple of weeks ago, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado attended the annual meeting of the Rio Grande Compact Commission. This group defines how water from the Rio Grande will be shared amongst the three states. Drought conditions are worsening, and the available water supply is not enough to satisfy all demands. The Bureau of Reclamation presented a dire picture of continuing shortages, leaving little water for the riparian environment, Native American groups, and farmers. Tension was high. Exchanges were acrimonious, especially between Texas and New Mexico.
Last year Texas went to court, specifically the U.S. Supreme Court, charging that New Mexico farmers and others have increased groundwater pumping as surface water allotments have declined. This pumping, Texas claims, has exacerbated declines in Rio Grande flows such that Texas is no longer receiving all its water under the Compact. Texas wants groundwater pumping near the state border in New Mexico stopped. New Mexico contends that groundwater was never part of the Compact and that Texas pumps plenty of groundwater along the Rio Grande. Neither state much regulates groundwater pumping now.
This sounds a lot like the sub-flow issue in Arizona. But Texas apparently wants pumping curtailed in entire groundwater basins in New Mexico, not just in alluvium near the river. This from a state where groundwater is regarded as a property right, not to be touched by government. Texas property owners stubbornly resist any attempt to restrict their use of groundwater. Even the leading contender for Governor, Greg Abbott, drilled a private well at his mansion in Austin to water his lawn to avoid water conservation restrictions in a persistent drought. Texas may want the Supreme Court to order a revision of the 1939 Rio Grande Compact to re-allocate water amongst the three states. Texas is big and politically powerful and might wind up with most of the water; New Mexico is correctly worried about the outcome
Arizona, California and Nevada worked out a shortage sharing agreement for the lower Colorado River some years ago. We are only a couple of years away from the first declaration of shortage, and the first tier of cutbacks (which Arizona agriculture must absorb). But what happens if shortages continue and agreed-upon steps don’t suffice? What if large and politically powerful California asserts its senior rights in court? This would become a debilitating battle over dwindling water that no one should want, yet everyone must fight. The apocryphal story circulates amongst water buffalos that years ago during negotiations over the Colorado River and shortages, the Arizona representative told the Nevada representative (recently retired) that Arizona already had a million dollars assembled to hire lawyers. The quick retort: “We’ll see your million dollars, and raise you twenty.”
What is going on with the Rio Grande Compact is a cautionary tale for Colorado River water users. It is far better to cooperate than to litigate.