Objections to Rio Grande SCOTUS settlement could drop in October
The clerk of the Supreme Court granted an extension for parties to submit arguments against a settlement proposal in the decade-long lawsuit over Rio Grande water.
U.S. 8th Circuit Judge Michael Melloy – overseeing the case as a special master – gave the nod in early July to a plan proposed jointly by attorneys from New Mexico, Texas and Colorado to settle the dispute.
The federal government argued for Melloy to toss the settlement, saying that issues about the administration of the terms would violate their status as a party to the lawsuit and would impose new burdens on federal agencies.
Melloy’s 123-page report recommended the Supreme Court accept the lawsuit over the U.S. Department of Justice’s objections.
In a Sept. 5 letter to the court, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar requested the date for arguments taking exception to the special master’s report to be pushed back to Oct. 6. Then other parties have a chance to reply in December, with one final round of arguments in January.
All parties agreed with the schedule changes according to the letter.
What happens next depends on the high’s court’s opinion of any objections to the special master’s report – which would most likely come after all arguments are filed in early January.
The long history and new settlement
This leg of the dispute started in 2013 when Texas sued New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case officially called Original No. 141 Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado . Texas alleged groundwater pumping from farming and other uses below Elephant Butte Reservoir shorted Texas of its fair share of Rio Grande water.
The river was split by the 1938 Rio Grande Compact signed by Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
Texas’ lawsuit was an escalation of decades of lawsuits in different layer of court, which intensified as the megadrought’s grasp on New Mexico’s water supplies has intensified in the last 30 years.
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the federal government to join as a party. The federal government’s argument’s mirrored Texas’ claims, saying New Mexico’s pumping threatened a U.S. treaty with Mexico and contracts with irrigation districts in southern New Mexico and far west Texas.
In 2022, after pivoting between settlement talks and heading back to trial, the state’s presented an eleventh-hour settlement proposal, which laid out how the Rio Grande would be split below Elephant Butte Dam. New Mexico would receive 57% of water, and Texas would receive 43% (all excluding Mexico’s share). A new index based off of the drought period from 1951-1978 would factor in groundwater pumping. The agreement lays out penalties if deliveries are above or below the agreed amount.
It also would require establishing the El Paso Gage, just past the Texas-New Mexico state line.