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New Mexico lawmakers challenge Texas water district agreement

New Mexico lawmakers challenge Texas water district agreement
Water woes for southern New Mexico. Water agreement is being questioned. Drought conditions make the issue more critical.

As drought conditions in New Mexico continue to plague agricultural production statewide, lawmakers are reviewing a 2008 water settlement agreement between Doña Ana County and El Paso County irrigation districts in hopes of reducing the flow of water in the Rio Grande River that allows the release of water downstream into Texas, resulting in what New Mexico State Attorney General Gary King calls a $183 million loss to New Mexico’s agriculture industry.

About 30 New Mexico lawmakers gathered in Truth or Consequences in late August to review and debate terms of the agreement between the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) and the El Paso County Water Improvement District (EPCWID), an agreement King says undermines New Mexico’s water future along the Rio Grande River Basin.

Last year King filed a federal lawsuit calling the agreement unfair to New Mexico and its agriculture industry. Representatives of the attorney general’s office told lawmakers that the river is currently flowing “from bank to bank” south of Elephant Butte Reservoir and that all that water belongs to New Mexico—not Texas. A new motion was filed in the case last week.

“One hundred percent of that water belongs to New Mexico and is being taken without state approval,” Assistant District Attorney Steve Farris told members of the New Mexico Interim Courts and Water Committee.

The fight for water, as expected, has ramped up in recent months as both states have been experiencing extreme drought conditions. But water issues across the Southwest and West are nothing new. Limited water resources and growing population and agriculture use across the region has elevated water concerns, and with the added complication of extreme drought and little rain to replenish supplies, water issues have become a volatile issue among lawmakers and agriculture users.

Farris says the state opposes the agreement reached between the two districts, even though the EBID claims it became necessary to avoid a lengthy legal fight that could ultimately limit Doña Ana County farmers from using water from the Rio Grande.

“Under terms of the agreement, the El Paso Irrigation District is providing its members three times the amount of water available to Elephant Butte Irrigation District members,” Farris argues.

Another concern that has fueled the debate this year is an earlier-than-usual window when farmers could place water orders with the district. The early window caused many farmers to place their orders at the last minute. But State Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, says in spite of orders placed for his family farm this year, less water than was allotted was provided by the EBID.

EBID officials say that is because of an International Water Boundary Commission (IWBC) agreement between the United States and Mexico that forced the U.S. to release Elephant Butte Reservoir water earlier in the year than normal. In addition, EBID officials say if they had not reached an agreement with the EPCWID when they did, it would have forced the issue to a state level where the attorney generals of both states would then be arguing the issue without regional farmer input.

But state officials say the agreement has caused increased groundwater pumping by agriculture users, which has further strained water availability in New Mexico. According to the 2008 agreement, which provided more water to the El Paso water district, EBID officials say it granted the district users the right to pump more groundwater.

In addition, EBID attorneys say Doña Ana County farmers, while loyal New Mexicans, are bound to nearby El Paso and the shared resources both rely upon. The last thing the district wants, they say, is litigation that would make life more difficult for both parties.

King and Farris, however, disagree with the district and filed a motion recently in federal court that challenges the agreement. According to officials close to the case, the court is expected to rule on that motion in about 30 days.

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