State officials criticize Supreme Court, Biden administration after ruling on Rio Grande dispute

Colorado, Texas and New Mexico state officials voiced unanimous discontent after the Supreme Court on Friday upended a deal aimed at resolving long-term water disputes on the Rio Grande.

Siding with the federal government, the court — in a 5-4 decision — denied a motion made by the states to enter a consent decree for the shared management of the 1,896-mile river.

“I am disappointed that a narrow majority of the Supreme Court has unfortunately and incorrectly granted the federal government even more power over the States,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said in a statement.

The consent decree had detailed how New Mexico and Texas would solve past quarrels over how the former delivers water to the latter. But the U.S. argued that the proposal would both require the government to adhere to plans that it hadn’t approved and violate historic compact conditions.

Paxton countered that assertion, emphasizing that the proposed decree could “put an end to more than a decade of litigation and ensure Texas farmers have access to vital water supplies.”

“However, the Biden Administration objected, claiming that they can unilaterally block the states’ resolution of a dispute between the states themselves,” he added.

Since the signing of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, the three states have managed river use through a debt-credit system that accounts for shifts in hydrological conditions. New Mexico typically receives 57 percent of the domestic flow, while 43 percent goes to Texas. Two decades prior to the 1938 deal, the U.S. had also signed a separate water-sharing agreement with Mexico.

The Supreme Court on Friday found that the 1938 deal “is inextricably intertwined” with contracts that both predate the compact and require the U.S. to facilitate water deliveries from New Mexico to Texas. Any hypothetical interference, the opinion argued, could render the government “unable to meet its duties.”

As for U.S. obligations to Mexico, the opinion noted that these international water transfers hinge upon New Mexico’s adherence to its compact duties. Any breach of those duties, the document added, could undercut the ability of the U.S to fulfill its commitment to its southern neighbor.

Echoing the sentiments of the Texas attorney general, Paxton’s counterparts in both New Mexico and Colorado expressed their frustrations following the Friday ruling.

“We are profoundly disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision to reject a comprehensive settlement that would have safeguarded the rights of water users throughout southern New Mexico,” the state’s attorney general, Raúl Torrez (D), said in a statement.

“We are even more disappointed that the federal government would stand in the way of an equitable resolution of a decades-long case that neither Texas nor New Mexico wish to continue,” he added.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) offered a similar perspective, recognizing how the states had “found a way to resolve their dispute” within the confines of the compact.

Conveying slightly more optimism than his colleagues, he stressed that the ruling “cannot change the fact that three states have already resolved their dispute under the Compact and are interested in ending this litigation.”

“I remain committed to working with Texas and New Mexico to develop a path forward that ends this dispute as expeditiously as possible,” Weiser added.

Torrez, however, noted that Friday’s ruling could result in millions of dollars spent on legal fees, while increasing uncertainty among his state’s water users. He also accused the federal government of trying “to dictate how New Mexico meets its obligations to the State of Texas.”

“It’s a sad day when two western states are able to resolve a generational dispute over water only to have that deal undermined by lawyers and bureaucrats in Washington D.C.,” Torrez added.

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