It’ll be months before a judge makes a decision on a deal that could end the fight over Rio Grande water between New Mexico and Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the state still needs to spend millions of dollars to cut groundwater pumping in Southern New Mexico.
State officials and the lead attorney in the case on Thursday told lawmakers on the Senate Conservation Committee they need more than $125 million over the next five years to address water supply for the Mesilla Aquifer — which feeds Las Cruces — and to reduce pumping in southern New Mexico below Elephant Butte by about 17,000 acre feet.
To help understand how much that is, that amount of water could cover the entire city of Las Cruces in water 4 inches deep.
The money would be used to make good on promises in the proposed plan, said attorney Jeff Wechsler, who represents New Mexico in Original No. 141 Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado.
On Monday, the states jointly presented the proposed decree to a federal judge and argued they think it can end the near-decade of litigation over Rio Grande water.
The federal government opposes the deal, saying it does not go far enough in setting specific limits on New Mexico’s groundwater, and that concerns remain over how the plan would change operations for a series of federally-managed dams, reservoirs and canals in the southern part of the state.
If the judge does eventually approve the proposal, New Mexico would be required to deliver water to Elephant Butte, and from there send 57% to southern New Mexico and the other 43% to El Paso, Texas.
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Wechsler told state lawmakers that the deal on the table incorporates an equation based on a drought period from 1951 to 1978 as a “baseline” for how much groundwater can be pumped from the Rio Grande.
With the budget request before the state Legislature, $75 million would go to projects recharging the aquifer, and potentially desalinating water in the Mesilla Valley, said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Interstate Stream Commission director.
The rest would go to programs to retire farmlands. All $125 million would be spent over a five year period.
Wechsler said the mood was “cautiously optimistic” that the federal judge in the case would recommend the proposal and allow the state’s to proceed with the water plan.
If rejected, “then we’ll be right back at trial,” he said.
And going back to court could lead to New Mexico losing even more water.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez (D-Albuquerque) asked Wechsler what would happen if the judge or the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the federal government’s arguments that New Mexico would need to cut more groundwater pumping under an even higher standard.
Wechsler said the consequences would be quite significant, and New Mexico would need to cut back hundreds of thousands of acre-feet instead of 17,000.
“In those circumstances,” he said, “there would be very, very significant and draconian measures taken below Elephant Butte to severely reduce depletions and water use.”