We’re Still in a Heap of Trouble

The inconvenient truth is New Mexico’s economic well-being depends critically upon water.  We are already in one of the driest periods in the last millennium.  The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources projects about 25% less water availability within the next 50 years due to climate change.  With increased pumping because of drought, groundwater levels across most of the State are dropping, in some cases to the point of running out. 

These statewide issues foretell slow train wrecks and do need attention.  However, there is one water issue in the Middle Rio Grande that is urgent, potentially a fast train wreck.  This article describes that urgent issue. 

What’s happening?

The 2023 Rio Grande Compact data shows that New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande (MRG) region (Los Alamos Highway to Elephant Butte Reservoir) has again consumed more than its legally allotted share of the river’s flow.  We have been regularly failing to deliver sufficient water to Elephant Butte Reservoir as required to meet our obligations to downstream water users (see cumulative balance graph). 

For more than a decade, the trend has been downward.  This past year the shortfall was 29,400 acre-feet (about 9.6 billion gallons).  Our cumulative debt is now 121,500 acre-feet.  At 200,000 acre-feet debt, we violate this three-state treaty (CO, NM, TX). 

So why worry?

For years, water users downstream south of Elephant Butte Reservoir have not received their legally entitled share of the river’s flow.  Both those southern New Mexicans and Texans downstream are rightfully unhappy.

Projecting forward with the 2023 shortfall, the MRG would reach the Compact violation at the end of 2026. 

New Mexico is still litigating toward a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the twelve-year-old lawsuit concerning deliveries southward from Elephant Butte Reservoir to Texas.  This lawsuit has already cost New Mexico taxpayers statewide about 80 million dollars, and counting.         

Unless ongoing excess water uses are curtailed, the MRG’s average annual under-deliveries suggest that New Mexico will clearly violate the Compact. This would surely lead to an additional lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court.  This time, the lawsuit and likely adverse ruling would add costs far beyond what we’ve endured thus far during the Lower Rio Grande lawsuit.

Even worse, any potential adverse judgement could involve serious consequences to New Mexico and MRG water users:  a large monetary penalty, requirements to provide years of over-deliveries thereby depriving the MRG users of water, and/or federal court control over our use of water.  It’s a hammer hanging over our heads.

We need to act now!

When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.  Without a doubt we must reduce our over-use of MRG water to reverse the cumulative downward trend.  This will take prompt hard work, and shared sacrifices.

It is in the vital interests of we, the MRG water users – big agricultural and water utility agencies, smaller agencies, community organizations, individuals – to work together immediately.  Rather than let the State Engineer direct a potentially lopsided solution, or worse, have him do nothing, we should act –come together and collaboratively determine an agreement on how each of us will manage our uses to achieve our Compact obligations.  Usage reductions should be sufficient, equitable, and designed to minimize the overall impacts.  Of course, we must establish management strategies that will implement the agreement throughout the future years.  We need to act now!

Bob Wessely has worked with and led the Water Assembly, now Water Advocates, for twenty-five years. Partnering with the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments, the Assembly coordinated the planning process that resulted in the 2004 MRG Regional Water Plan.

In Bob’s previous 30-year career, he co-founded and served as Technical Director of SciSo, Inc., an Albuquerque software system engineering and management consulting firm supporting diverse industries nationwide. Although Bob holds a PhD in Theoretical, Solid-State Physics, at heart he is a systems engineer who enjoys finding solutions for problems important to NM and its communities, especially water.

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