What’s behind the Texas v. New Mexico water lawsuit?

The states of Texas and New Mexico are currently embroiled in an expensive legal battle over the water of the ever diminishing Rio Grande River.  At first glance, this case appears to be a struggle over water rights, but it is in reality emblematic of some of the worst aspects of capitalism.

Five years ago, the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against New Mexico claiming that it was not delivering the yearly water allotment due to them under the Rio Grande Compact. Since then, the two states have spent millions of dollars in what has become a heated and monumental battle over water in the Southwest.

The Rio Grande Compact was created in 1938 to ensure that the two states and the state of Colorado would get their fair share of water from the river. Under the Compact, Colorado has a legal obligation to provide New Mexico with its allocation at the state line, and New Mexico must provide the specified legal amount due to Texas. Instead of allowing the legal amount of water to flow freely over the border, New Mexico collects the water at Elephant Butte Dam and sends it to El Paso and western Texas.

In 2013 Texas sued New Mexico claiming that New Mexico was not meeting its water requirements because it was allowing farmers south of Elephant Butte Dam to use groundwater to irrigate their crops. Texas argued that drawing groundwater that feeds into the Rio Grande reduces the flow into Texas, and therefore does not meet the water requirement under the Compact. New Mexico refuted that claim stating that it was still meeting its water requirements to Texas because it measures and sends the water directly from Elephant Butte Dam. Allowing farmers to draw groundwater for irrigation, however, is technically illegal.

In 2014, a special master of the U.S. Supreme Court was assigned to investigate the case, and in March of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that it could intervene in the case on the reason that the U.S. has an international water agreement with Mexico, and a breach of the Rio Grande Compact could lead to a breach in the country’s obligations to Mexico.

Farmers south of Elephant Butte Dam rely on the water from the dam to irrigate their crops. During dry years when there is not enough water, New Mexico has allowed and even encouraged farmers to pump groundwater to support their farms. This support has not only resulted in the lawsuit, but it has left farmers feeling isolated and set up for failure by their own state. “We cringe when we hear, ‘Not one more drop to Texas,’ because that means not one more drop for us,” says Samantha Barncastle, the lawyer for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. (High Country News)

One can argue and point fingers all day over which state is right or wrong in this battle, who is being greedy, or who is mismanaging whose water. In fact, now New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is blaming Texas and even Mexico for mismanagement and has filed a counter-suit. The real battle, however, is against the system that mismanages our water.

The Rio Grande is the longest river in North America as well as one of the most important in the arid Southwest. The river supplies water to several major cities as well as irrigates over 31,000 square miles of farmland in its journey through southern Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

The use of Rio Grande water for agriculture is being increasingly threatened each passing year, with New Mexico hosting corporations like Intel and Facebook that suck thousands of gallons from the Rio Grande every single day, with more groundwater being wasted to the ever growing number of oil and gas fracking wells.

With the U.S. Supreme Court now siding with Texas against New Mexico, the state’s prospects appear dismal. If New Mexico loses to Texas, it will face $1 billion in fines, about twenty percent of the state’s budget. It will force New Mexico to allocate more water to Texas which will have to be found somewhere north of Elephant Butte Dam. This demand will most likely result in the draining of more groundwater or the predation of water rights of poor, small town farmers. This issue is one that farmers in New Mexico have already been facing for decades, and with the growing climate crisis, the struggle for water only becomes more precarious.

In 2001 and 2002, the Rio Grande dried up before even making it to the Gulf of Mexico. More recently in April, the Rio Grande dried up for over 20 miles at the Bosque del Apache, an alarming event that scientists are warning could become the new norm. Scientists are also predicting that the river will dry up even as far north as Albuquerque this summer, making it a 120-mile dry stretch of river. With a quickly disappearing river and reports of water tables rapidly dropping in the Mesilla Valley, the agricultural region south of Elephant Butte; and Albuquerque, whose water table is predicted to be depleted in 10 years; the Southwest is facing a very real crisis.

It is not a crisis at the hands of farmers and the people though, it is a crisis caused by capitalism. Lack of planning, deliberate negligence, exploitation, and mismanagement of our natural resources is how capitalism functions. When it comes to profit, capitalism is “act now, think later,” but only think if it harms profit. Capitalism puts profit before all else, which is why water rights are taken from  small farmers, but not from corporations. It is why millions of our tax dollars are being wasted on this lawsuit, millions of dollars that could be used for education, housing, employment and better planning. Texas and New Mexico are not fighting over water to sustain their people, they are fighting over a commodity, because that is what water is under capitalism. It is not a resource that sustains us, it is a resource to be profited from. Capitalism commodifies life itself, creating its own environmental crises with no real solutions. Who are the ones who suffer from this? We do, the people.

There are two sides one can choose in this issue and it’s not Texas or New Mexico. It’s the people versus capitalism.


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