As the state’s population booms, water – or the lack of it – is becoming an increasing problem in west Texas. Each drop is precious. On January 8, Texas and New Mexico are headed to the Supreme Court to give their oral arguments in a dispute over an 80-year-old compact involving water from the Rio Grande. Texas claims New Mexico hasn’t been handing over the state’s allocated share of water, leaving its residents and their pecan trees high and dry.
As soon as the Ramirez Pecan farm in Clint, Texas opens on a Saturday morning, it gets busy. Several customers are walking through the farm’s 300 trees, buckets in hand, collecting pecans while others buy pre-packaged ones in the small gift shop.
Lupe Ramirez runs the family farm.
“My grandmother works here. My aunt works here. My uncle comes in often. My dad stops in when permitted by health. My mom comes out here and does baking. I’m out here,” Ramirez says.
In recent years, getting enough water for the 10-acre farm has become a challenge. About five years ago, Ramirez had to install pumps for groundwater. Lately there just hasn’t been much water in the Rio Grande for farmers like him who live near the end of the 1,800-mile river.
“We’re last in line,” Ramirez says. “So it’s going to go through farmers in Albuquerque and other little farms on the way down to El Paso. So we’re kind of last in there to get it.”
The trouble started about 15 years ago when droughts and rapid population growth depleted the Rio Grande.
Jesus Reyes is the manager for El Paso County Water Improvement District #1. He says during the driest years, the shares of water going to farmers were cut drastically – and the salty groundwater that farmers like Ramirez pump isn’t the same as the nutrient-filled water from the Rio Grande.
“The more groundwater that you pump and place on those trees, the more harm you’re going to do to it because of the salt,” Reyes says.
But it turns out another part of the problem was that New Mexico was shorting Texas under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact. Gabriel Eckstein is the director of the International Water Project and a professor at Texas A&M’s School of Law.
“Texas is getting the short end of the stick because that water’s full amount is not reaching the border,” Eckstein says.
In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and irrigation districts in Las Cruces, New Mexico and El Paso signed a new agreement to share water during droughts. But soon after, New Mexico sued Texas, claiming it was losing too much water under the deal.
Then in 2013, Texas filed its own lawsuit, saying New Mexico was allowing its residents to overpump groundwater connected to the river. This is the case that’s headed to the Supreme Court on January 8.
“The compact doesn’t obligate New Mexico to deliver x amount at the Texas border,” Eckstein says. “However, Texas is arguing that that’s implied because the compact took into account all the other prior agreements.”
Last February, a court-appointed official released a report siding with Texas. This pushed the case forward to the nation’s highest court. Folks on both sides of the state line are watching it closely.
“This has put everybody into a mode of anxiety and tension because we don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, and we don’t know what kind of action we’ll have to take once they move forward on the decisions they make,” Gary Esslinger says.
Esslinger has been the manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in Las Cruces, New Mexico for three decades. He says if the court rules in favor of Texas, it could dramatically limit the amount of groundwater Mesilla Valley pecan, chile and cotton farmers pump.
“The agricultural community in the Mesilla Valley would be literally in an economic downturn over time,” Esslinger says. “And I’m not so sure if farmers could survive.”
That’s what concerns Las Cruces farmer LuAnne Burke. Her family’s pecan farm is 70 miles upstream from the Ramirez farm. Local farmers are harvesting pecans using a machine to shake the trees.
Burke says the lawsuit is on everyone’s mind.
“Like if you go anywhere and talk long enough everybody’s going to mention it,” Burke says. “But it’s one of those things where it’s like the scary, scary, scary thing that actually might happen so you don’t want to talk about it too much because it is so frightening.”
Texas A&M Professor Eckstein says the root of this dispute comes from the wording of the 80-year-old compact between Texas and New Mexico.
“This isn’t the first compact that in hindsight wasn’t well-written,” Eckstein says. “I don’t know who the lawyers were for Texas but I don’t think somebody thought ahead.”
Amending the compact would require congressional approval.
Eckstein says he expects many more lawsuits over water in the future. After all, it wasn’t even five years ago when the Supreme Court blocked Texas from running pipeline into Oklahoma for more water from the Red River.