United States Supreme Court to Hear Oral Arguments in Texas v. New Mexico Water Dispute

In November 2022, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado reached an agreement to resolve the long-standing dispute between the states over whether New Mexico delivers appropriate amounts of water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact. However, the United States objects to the agreement and asserts that the federal government must agree before any agreement is implemented. The Special Master recommended that the United States Supreme Court approve the agreement over the objections of the federal government. The Court recently agreed to hear oral arguments on the issue on March 20. The decision raises important questions about the role of the federal government in water allocation agreements between states, which have traditionally held absolute authority with respect to water rights. 

The decision will be important to agriculture since agricultural water withdrawals generally constitute the leading use of water. Agricultural withdrawals also form the focus of many interstate water disputes. Several producer groups and agricultural irrigation organizations have filed friend-of-court briefs supporting approval of the agreement.

Texas filed a complaint in 2013, alleging that New Mexico was not delivering the amount of water to Texas required under the Rio Grande Compact. In 2014, the Court allowed the federal government to intervene in the case, and the federal government filed its own complaint, noting that the United States has an obligation to deliver water from the Rio Grande to Mexico under a treaty between the nations, and the federal government manages a large water project on the river. In 2018 the Court denied New Mexico’s motion to dismiss both complaints. 

After years of negotiation, the states reached an agreement that bases water allocations on a hydrologic formula and provides penalties against New Mexico for annual or cumulative departures from that allocation that exceed certain amounts. The penalties are in the form of allocated water transfers from New Mexico to Texas.

The agreement is unique and may provide a model for future agreements. A decision by the Court that allows the federal government to exert control over agreements between the states on water allocation would interject even more uncertainty. The federal government could conceivably regulate the use of surface water and groundwater for agricultural production within the states, a role that states jealously guard. Twenty-three states have filed a friend-of-court brief urging the Court to approve the agreement.

Richards, Jesse, and Tiffany Lashmet. “United States Supreme Court to Hear Oral Arguments in Texas v. New Mexico Water Dispute.Southern Ag Today 4(6.5). February 9, 2024. Permalink