Cooperation is the only answer to NM’s water woes

The snow didn’t come this winter. The Rio Grande is drying up early. We’re tapping into our groundwater to compensate. New Mexico is in a complex legal battle for water involving Texas, Colorado and the federal government that we’re unlikely to win. That could have dire consequences, especially for people in Southern New Mexico.

And fire season started early this year, at least by historical standards. Our region is already visibly experiencing the effects of a warming climate. Plus we screwed up forest management for a century. Now we’re losing our pine forests. They aren’t growing back.

Over the past few years, as I’ve watched this play out, one thought has come to mind over and over.

Thanks, Gary King.

That’s a bit glib, of course. New Mexico’s former attorney general is hardly to blame for the planet’s warming climate, cyclical drought, forest mismanagement, our confusing and disastrous water laws, and decades of growth without a sustainable water plan. We all share that blame.

But it’s clear that the only way to address these issues, at least the only option that gives New Mexico any chance at a better future, is cooperation–across the political aisle, between local government agencies, with businesses and residents, and with other states and nations.

That’s where King blew it.

A decade ago, when the reservoir levels dropped at Elephant Butte and Caballo lakes, local water and irrigation districts in Southern New Mexico and El Paso County, Texas, signed a new agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, agreeing to share the pain through drought.

Neighborly and reasonable.

King’s office didn’t like it. The N.M. attorney general sued the federal government, alleging Texas was getting too much water from the Rio Grande.

The war began. Texas sued back, alleging that New Mexico had for decades taken more water than allowed by letting farmers pump groundwater, which drains the river. “I feel like we had no choice,” Texas’ commissioner on the Rio Grande Compact Commission, Patrick Gordon, recently told New Mexico Political Report.

The federal government joined in, arguing that New Mexico was also hurting the United States’ ability to meet its obligation to deliver water to Mexico.

In other words, when King threw a grenade at a cooperative agreement, Texas and the federal government responded with nukes.

Folks who understand water law generally don’t expect New Mexico to win this battle. We may owe Texas $1 billion to compensate for past years. Farmers and others, particularly in southern New Mexico, may have to stop pumping groundwater. Farms may vanish. Economic development projects could be halted. Cities may struggle to serve residents.

The future of the Mesilla Valley is in jeopardy.

What now? Our current attorney general, Hector Balderas, with a team of local and state agencies by his side, has continued the war King started, even hiring his old law firm, no experts in water law or U.S. Supreme Court cases, to argue the case. I’d like to see Balderas put down New Mexico’s guns and try to negotiate a truce. Maybe there’s still a chance to share the pain in dry years, which are becoming increasingly common.

And we must elect leaders who understand the need for cooperation. While history may not remember King kindly, perhaps we can learn from his mistake.

We’re going to lose our forests, at least as we know them today. Our rivers will flow less often. But that doesn’t mean our state has to shrivel up and die.

Haussamen runs the news organization NMPolitics.net. Reach him at heath@haussamen.com, on Facebook at /haussamen, or on twitter @haussamen.