Judge orders draft Rio Grande executive order made public
A US judge serving as a special master in the legal battle over the management of the Rio Grande, one of North America’s longest rivers, has paved the way for the release of a draft settlement.
The federal government had sought to keep details of the agreement between Texas, New Mexico and Colorado sealed, but the judge denied that request. Under an order issued Friday, the proposal and associated briefs and exhibits will be made public next week as state and federal prosecutors prepare for an upcoming hearing on the merits of the proposal.
The case has been pending in the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a decade, and the stakes are rising as much of the West grapples with persistent drought.
The states announced in October that they had brokered a deal after months of negotiations. New Mexico’s attorney general at the time cited extreme drought and erratic weather events, saying it was imperative that states work together to protect the river.
Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice and the irrigation districts that serve farmers downstream of Elephant Butte Reservoir, however, argued that the proposal would not be a viable solution.
The river, which flows from the mountains of southern Colorado to Mexico, is managed by a system of federal dams and canals under the provisions of a decades-old water-sharing agreement.
Texas argued that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico has reduced river flows, limiting the amount of water that crosses the border. New Mexico maintains that it was bypassed on its part of the river. Colorado also has rights to the river.
The battle over the Rio Grande has become a multi-million dollar affair in a region where water supplies are dwindling due to increased demand as well as drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change.
Some of the stretches of the river in New Mexico saw record flows in 2022, leading some farmers to voluntarily fallow fields to help the state meet downstream water-sharing obligations.
Judge Michael Melloy noted in his order that teams of negotiators including engineers, hydrologists and others had worked collaboratively for much of 2022 to develop formulas, limits and potential remedies as possible avenues for settle the dispute.
Lawyers for the Justice Department sought to keep the information sealed, saying making it public would violate a confidentiality agreement. But the order noted that all parties had admitted that the underlying data used to derive the formulas and deviation limits was publicly available and part of the water management toolkit commonly used throughout. the country.
“Here, there is simply no colorable claim of ownership over the general ideas, public data, and common techniques expressed in the decree,” Melloy wrote.
He said it was not possible to examine the proposed agreement and find out what the federal government was or was not willing to admit, waive or compromise in an effort to settle the claims. .
Melloy has scheduled a hearing in early February on the merits of the draft executive order.