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Drought Fuels Water War Between Texas and New Mexico

Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Photo by Sandra Postel

As climate change alters rainfall patterns and river flows, tensions are bound to rise between states and countries that share rivers that cross their borders.

In the Rio Grande Basin of the American Southwest, that future inevitability has arrived.

Last week Texas, suffering through a devastating drought, filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico is failing to live up to its water delivery commitments under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

The Rio Grande rises in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and flows 1,900 miles before entering the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas charges that New Mexico’s pumping of groundwater in the region below Elephant Butte Dam to the New Mexico-Texas border is reducing Rio Grande flows into Texas, thereby depriving the state’s farms and cities of water they are legally entitled to under the Compact.

Texas v. New Mexico is likely to be but one of a string of disputes that erupt as drought causes water supplies to dwindle and water-sharing pacts devised in wetter and less-populated times can no longer hold the peace.

Texas doesn’t specify how much water it believes New Mexico is illegally withholding, but indicates it is sufficient to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland.  The city of El Paso also relies on Rio Grande water for half of its supply.

New Mexico officials have consistently maintained that the state is sending to Texas all the Rio Grande water to which it is legally entitled.  The state attorney general said in a recent statement that Texas is “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water and using a lawsuit to extort an agreement that would only benefit Texas while destroying water resources for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans.”

Fighting words, to be sure.

If the Supreme Court justices decide to take up the case, they would do well to first sign up for hydrology 101.

One of the great water myths is that rivers and underground aquifers are separate and distinct sources of water.  In reality, rivers and groundwater are often intimately connected.  Groundwater provides the “base” flow that keeps many rivers running during dry times. For their part, rivers and irrigation canals leak water into the subsurface, recharging the aquifers below.

In dry years, when surface supplies run low, farmers often turn to underground water to replace or supplement their irrigation supply.  That’s what New Mexico farmers downstream of Elephant Butte have done during years of drought and low river flows.

In the Mesilla Basin, for example, groundwater is the primary source of irrigation water for about 5,000 acres, but is a supplemental source of supply for more than 70,000 acres.  So in dry times, groundwater withdrawals ratchet up.

According to an article on the impacts of groundwater pumping in the Rio Grande Basin published in this month’s Ecosphere, a journal of the Ecological Society of America, during the 2004 drought, when federal officials curtailed releases from Elephant Butte Dam, pumping from the Messila Aquifer rose to twice the long-term average.

The drought of recent years has elicited a similar response from farmers, and groundwater pumping in the Rio Grande Valley has increased markedly. But how much this pumping has affected flows into Texas is in question.

The current bi-state conflict began in 2007 when Texas farmers complained that New Mexico was extracting too much groundwater.  To avoid an escalating legal fight, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Elephant Butte, worked out an agreement with two irrigation districts in Texas and New Mexico to give Texas more river water to make up for New Mexico’s groundwater use.

That agreement didn’t sit well with New Mexico officials, however, and three years later the state filed suit against the Bureau, charging that the deal gave away too much of New Mexico’s Rio Grande allotment to Texas and would cause $183 million in damages to the state’s agricultural economy.

Texas shot back with the lawsuit filed last week.

Meanwhile, the drought persists. Elephant Butte is at 8 percent of its storage capacity, the same as when I visited the reservoir last August.

While the legal case may drag on for years, it is a wake-up call for all states and nations that share transboundary waters to proactively add resilience to their treaties and institutions before crises hit, and even more importantly, to develop workable governing structures over water where they are lacking.

It is also a lesson to invest now in water efficiency improvements so as to reduce pressures on both rivers and aquifers.

Because while the Supreme Court may ultimately decide this Texas-sized water dispute, even the highest court in the land can’t dictate Mother Nature to deliver more water.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”



  1. John the Baptist the 2nd
    March 28, 2013, 9:01 pm

    Intensification of drought in new Mexico is in process and cannot be stopped except by institution of two mandates demanded. The bureaucracy can knock themselves any way they may choose in dealing with it. Darker days are headed your way and when you get to shear desperation , drop me a line. or don’t.

  2. Carmen M. Quintana
    March 18, 2013, 8:56 am

    Please let me have a couple of days to digest what the Legislature accomplished before I comment. As most of you understand I support smaller water systems and self government. I am currently working on a huge seminar to get all of our activists together. Carmen.

  3. Dal Graham
    California but visiting in Austin TX for two months
    March 15, 2013, 2:26 pm

    I’m amazed that Texas has filed a lawsuit against New Mexico, when they haven’t solved this very same pumping issue within their own state.Their own supreme court decided that “The guy with the biggest pump wins”. This means you can pump unlimited water from your pump, and it’s o.k. to drain your neighbors well or dry up his spring. Get on the internet and look up how “Fracking” is drying up neighbors wells in South West Texas. Each oil or gas well drilled uses 4 to 6 million gallons of water that can’t be recycled. Also read how Texas law is confused on whether permits are required for this type of water use . Related to this issue is there any limitation on Texas as to how much water they can pump out of their portion of the Ogallala aquifer that is down slope from New Mexico?

  4. sefy
    March 15, 2013, 4:13 am

    Let’s stop using the term ‘water war’. It adds little to the conversation. And please refrain from using the term ‘underground aquifer’. I have yet to meet an aquifer that is not underground.

    Sometimes rivers and aquifers are disconnected (note that New Mexico’s water law acknowledges the connection). And for those that are connected, the effects of pumping on streamflow may take years before it manifests itself.

  5. Stephen Verchinski
    United States
    March 1, 2013, 2:36 am

    Having worked on the Natural Resources section of the Lower Rio Chama Water Plan I agree that the hydrologic connection river to adjacent pumped aquifers is usually a sound scientific argument. The question is Texas wants to find out is how much. Can’t blame them for thinking that the pumping is keeping the Rio Grande a dry riverbed. New Mexico needs to get the next generation of hydrologists out there now for this analysis. Maybe if the scientists up at Los Alamos have nothing to do after the sequester and elimination of their pet projects they can help putting their minds to a greater cause. That said it’s going to take money, money that the governor and the legislature are gushing over giving to the corporate community. Hate to tell them both but this arid desert area needs to be constrained on growth. I said that with others decades ago looking at the middle Rio Grande transportation expansion issues. We realized then that without looking at the long term water and the cost of it, all other economic growth is an illusion. However the politicians did not like that science based approach. It smacked of implementing smart growth planning like that republican socialist commune called Boulder, Colorado or Agenda 21 recommendations. I can already hear the wackadoodles saying heck no, that’s too much like those social societies like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands. You know, the successful ones where people play nice.

  6. Carmen M. Quintana
    P.O.Box 8553, Santa Fe NM 87504-8553
    February 21, 2013, 2:18 pm

    I appreciate the comments posted about Steve Reynolds because I always considered him one of my heroes until I read the Crowder comments. It surely changed my mind. He told me many years ago that I would have to get ALL of Santa Fe’s families together before we achieved justice.

    I discovered so much two Friday’s ago when Senator Nancy Rodriguez of Santa Fe asked the State Engineer’s Office how many of our municipalities were involved in the New Mexico vs.US case filed by the Attorney General’s Office. Their response was zero. We know that municipalities are
    using water that our ancestors SUSTAINED themselves with for municipal use. We all need to learn more about our towns and cities. The Legislature is only confusing the heck out of all of us. Spending money that belongs to all of us to try to confuse some of us.

  7. V-man
    February 5, 2013, 12:29 pm

    Times are hard for everyone in some way, the Rio Grande is drying up, Kansas’ water reserves are emptying, and who know what else. But it’s Texas’ water.

  8. Paul White
    Santa Fe
    January 31, 2013, 12:12 am

    Isn’t it time that our planners look at alternatives to pumping and diverting water for municipal use?
    If there isn’t enough to go around, what about requiring 100% return flow systems for new development and subsidies to retrofit existing users?
    Santa Fe County is currently working on their “sustainable” growth management plan. What they envision is even more density and more reliance on the RG. One would think with all of their big brains they would see what is happening right in front of their eyes and consider having a contingency plan rather than pumping the aquifer dry and/or draining the RG (including the proposed Aamodt RG diversion of another 4,500 afy).
    So far they aren’t listening or looking.

  9. efshafi
    chennai, India
    January 22, 2013, 11:58 pm

    Even in India, Tamilnadu is the southern tip of peninsula. our three neighbouring states are dishonouring our water sharing agreements which creates social unrest with protest. Our Tamilnadu is slowly transforming into desert due all the agricultural lands and lakes are sold for housing purpose.

  10. Krash Krashkowski
    January 22, 2013, 9:13 pm

    See CU Professor of Physics Al Bartlett’s lectures on population growth and the exhaustion of finite resources in support of some previous comments above. Scientifically – not as a religious or political pronouncement – the end comes faster than you expect. Denver is developing beyond its water supply. The entire central and southwest region is an artificial habitat dependent on water management. Texas and NM cities with their swimming pools and golf courses will look like Petra soon.

  11. jane overton
    socorro, nm
    January 22, 2013, 10:02 am

    One need only study the River Keepers Manual to see how flawed it is in favor of TX. The manuals for determining the obligation to TX for the Rio Grand AND the Pecos River are bad hydrology,apparently designed to give TX more water than exists durung severe drought.

  12. Dr. William Turner
    Albuquerque, New Mexico
    January 21, 2013, 2:53 pm

    Some New Mexico State Engineer’s have had a screw Texas point of view which is now coming home to roost. For example, in 1972, Charles Crowder, a land developer and visionary, acquired 22,000 acres of laqnd in the area of Santa Theresa. It was his long term vision to build a major metropolitan community and he needed water. So, Mr. Crowder had a meeting with long time State Engineer Steve Reynolds. Mr. Crowder asked Mr. Reynolds if he needed to file applications with the State Engineer Office for the 36 water wells he planned. Reynolds replied. “Hell no Charley. Drill all the wells you want. We want to get that water before it gets to Texas.” His mismanagement of the Pecos River resulted in the failure of New Mexico to deliver water to Texas on the Pecos River. The Supreme Court required New Mexico to bring their deliveries into accord with the Pecos River Compact. His mismanagement cost New New Mexico taxpayers more than $100 million to retire private water rights to satisfy the judgement.

  13. Dan Auerbach
    January 20, 2013, 7:58 pm

    Perhaps it would be worth asking Aaron Wolf to contribute a brief overview of his perspective on what it might actually mean to “add resilience” to treaties and institutions, particularly if they broker mutually exclusive trade-offs around finite supply. Do precedents exist, in transboundary settings or otherwise?

    Can you sketch out what it might look like if TX and NM (or the CO basin states, etc.) attempted to renegotiate compacts in light of current reality and expectations for the next few decades? It seems that some currency of exchange will be necessary, either trading volume in time or direct funds/capital.

  14. Michael Campana
    Corvallis, OR
    January 20, 2013, 2:39 pm

    Let’s stop using the term ‘water war’. It adds little to the conversation. And please refrain from using the term ‘underground aquifer’. I have yet to meet an aquifer that is not underground.

    Sometimes rivers and aquifers are disconnected (note that New Mexico’s water law acknowledges the connection). And for those that are connected, the effects of pumping on streamflow may take years before it manifests itself.

    • Sandra Postel
      January 20, 2013, 9:02 pm

      Michael, thank you for your comment. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know, or aren’t sure, what an aquifer is. We have a very large and broad readership for Water Currents, so I will sometimes insert “underground” before “aquifer.” Of course, you are correct that there are no aquifers above ground! As for water wars, here it simply represents literary license for a headline; I don’t think our readers take this literally and expect war to break out. Lastly, of course you’re correct that the degree of groundwater and surface water connectivity varies. In this case, there is significant connectivity. For some water budget data relevant to the lower Rio Grande, see the article by Zhuping Sheng I link to in the post. Thanks again for taking time to comment. (Readers, check out Michael’s blog, WaterWired: http://aquadoc.typepad.com/waterwired/). https://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php?same=175967#comments-form

  15. taylor streit
    taos NM
    January 18, 2013, 9:02 pm

    New Mexicans and Texans have dislike it ea for a long time. Thats becasue the texans have the money and gall that we so envy. so we pee in the Rio Grande here in NM as much a as possible before it ever leaves the state.

  16. Bob Burnitt
    Fort Worth Texas
    January 18, 2013, 2:39 pm

    The weather has changed HERE. I have always known the Earth is ALWAYS in periods of either Cooling or warming up, this has happened THOUSANDS of times if not MILLIONS. Where I live NOW was once a vast OCEAN. However, in my life time the WEATHER has changed HERE. We have so much OZONE, I cannot go outside half the time in the summer. We get COLD spells in May that are followed abruptly with AUGUST WEATHER. It has killed my garden the last 4 years in a row. I was RAISED in agriculture and I cannot even grow a garden any more here. When I was in HIGH School, I was WARNED of the coming Population DISASTER in my High School Vocational Agriculture Class. And now it is HERE. We have TOO many HUMANS. If people do not start practicing some SERIOUS BIRTH CONTROL over the next 70 years, it is going to be HORRIBLE. Also, our idiot Keynesian system of Economics is at the Keynesian Endpoint. That is a Disaster TOO!!! We are on the verge of what Thomas Malthus predicted. Just HIDE and WATCH. Bob Burnitt Ellis County Texas

  17. nmaif
    January 18, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Big Business scoffs at the idea of sustainable use, which means using no more water than your recharge every year. Yet another budget problem. Also, human beings are not even considering birth control. Arrogance and stupidity.