Skip to content

Justices question lawyers from New Mexico, Colorado and Texas about feds’ role in water dispute

New Mexico hits the high court on the Rio Grande
By Laura Paskus

WASHINGTON, DC—On a frigid Monday morning in the nation’s capital, as most of the press corps turned its attention toward a water dispute between Florida and Georgia, attorneys for New Mexico and Colorado tried to fend off the ability of the United States government to protect its water interests on the Rio Grande.

Attorneys for the US Bureau of Reclamation and the states of Texas, Colorado and New Mexico presented oral arguments to the US Supreme Court. The issue at hand is whether the United States has the right to intervene in the longstanding interstate water dispute under the Rio Grande Compact.

Each attorney had 10 to 20 minutes to weigh in on whether the federal government has a right to join the case based on the interstate compact the three states signed to divvy up the Rio Grande’s waters.

In 2013, Texas sued its two northern neighbors, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump groundwater, which is hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande, New Mexico wasn’t sending its legal share of water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.

Under that compact, signed before World War II, New Mexico doesn’t deliver water across the state line, but to Elephant Butte Reservoir about 100 miles north of Texas. From there, the Bureau of Reclamation sends Rio Grande Project water to southern New Mexico, Texas—and Mexico, too.

The United States says that by having allowed farmers to pump groundwater for decades, New Mexico has affected the agency’s ability to deliver water under the compact and the international treaty that sends water to Mexico.

Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Neil Gorsuch, and Stephen Breyer, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. fired questions at each of the attorneys. In trying to understand the water rights issues and the role the Bureau of Reclamation plays in both Texas and New Mexico, the justices grappled with whether to allow the US to intervene in the case under the terms of the compact.

For his part, Breyer seemed to think the case was clear. Citing the US Constitution, Breyer said the case “seems to be quite simple.” The Constitution, he said, allows the feds to intervene in cases in their own interest.

Of the four parties presenting oral arguments Monday, New Mexico was the only one to have a private attorney stand before justices. Marcus Rael, of Robles, Rael & Anaya in Albuquerque, represented New Mexico. The other attorneys included Ann O’Connell, assistant to the Solicitor General for the Department of Justice; Scott Keller, solicitor general of Texas; and Frederick Yarger, solicitor general of Colorado.

“Attorney General Balderas and Senator Udall were in attendance. AG Balderas was pleased the Supreme Court seemed to balance interests throughout the hearing,” spokesman James Hallinan said in a statement. “New Mexico is seeking to protect state sovereignty and prevent the vast expansion of the United States’ power over compacts among sovereign states.”

There’s plenty more to say about this landmark case, and New Mexico in Focus, along with a handful of media partners, will have a full story about Monday’s arguments, as well as context on why the case matters to New Mexico, in the days to come.