A federal judge has recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court approve a settlement among three Western states over the management of one of North America’s longest rivers.
U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy, the special master overseeing the case, outlined his recommendation in a report filed Monday. He called the proposal fair, reasonable and consistent with a decadeslong water-sharing agreement that spells out how Colorado, New Mexico and Texas must share the Rio Grande.
It was unclear when the Supreme Court will take up the recommendation. The court just wrapped up a busy term last week, issuing rulings on affirmative action, gay rights and President Joe Biden’s $400 billion plan to cancel or reduce federal student loan debt.
The states reached the proposed settlement last year. The federal government objected for several reasons, including that the proposal did not mandate specific water capture or use limitations within New Mexico.
Former New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose office was part of the negotiations, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he was grateful the judge recommended approval.
Balderas, who finished his tenure in 2022, said the proposed settlement was “a historic victory for New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers and will protect New Mexico’s most precious resource for future generations.”
Some New Mexico lawmakers voiced concerns during a recent legislative meeting, saying the settlement will create a battle between users in southern and northern New Mexico and that most farmers won’t go for the prices being offered by the state through a fallowing program.
State Engineer Mike Hamman, New Mexico’s top water manager, said Wednesday that his office is committed to complying with the settlement and the compact “through water rights administration, depletion management and supply augmentation strategies that will prevent the burden of compliance from falling on any single sector, particularly agriculture.”
If New Mexico fails to send enough water to Texas, then the Elephant Butte Irrigation District — the largest in New Mexico — must temporarily transfer rights to an irrigation district in Texas. If Texas receives too much, there would be a similar transfer from the El Paso district to the Elephant Butte district.
Melloy said there’s nothing in the proposal that protects New Mexico or users in the state against future claims from the federal Bureau of Reclamation or from other New Mexicans.