Article updated: (1) 4:31 pm 27 January 2013; (2) 7:05 pm 27 January 2013; Times are Eastern Standard Time (U.S.)
Econintersect: Texas is downstream from many of its water sources. In response to feeling the effects from recent years of drought, the Lone Star State is looking at its neighbors from whence the water flows and is taking its appeals directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Drought levels are lessened from a year ago, but more than half of the state is currently experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought. This same time in 2012 the number was over 95%. The map below shows the distribution of drought patterns in the southern part of the state.
The most severe drought is being experienced in the northwestern part of the state which includes the panhandle, as shown on the data map below from the National Drought Mitigation center.
Click on graphic for larger image.
Note that just 17 days before the data above was reported, at the beginning of the year the severe, extreme and exceptional drought number had been above 65%. January has seen some significant rainfall over wide areas of Texas which has mitigated the drought a little.
Texas is hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) will find in its favor in two suits it has filed against neighboring states over water rights. The high court has already agreed to hear an appeal of a decision involving Oklahoma. Texas is hoping the SCOTUS will also accept a case against New Mexico. The later case has not been heard in any lower court; Texas is trying to take the case directly to the final adjudicator in one step.
Texas Suit against New Mexico
The use of water from the Rio Grande River System is specified by the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Certain amounts of water, depending on stream flows, are specified to be stored in the Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico for release to maintain water flow to the lower Rio Grande bordering Texas. New Mexico says that they have met that requirement and Texas does not appear to be contesting that. A central point of the Texas suit is that the flow of the water below the Elephant Butte Dam is reduced by wells drilled near the river.
From an article in the Los Angeles Times:
“All we’re trying to do is protect the project and its users,” says Pat Gordon, Texas’ representative on the Rio Grande Compact Commission. “There’s been a lot of tension for a lot of years. It seems that it’s gotten progressively worse.”
For one thing, he says, more than 2,500 wells have been drilled below Elephant Butte since the compact was signed. The wells cause water to flow from the river into the adjoining underground aquifer, he says, reducing the amount of water available for the irrigation network.
The New Mexico position is also summarized by the LA Times article:
Sarah Bond, an assistant New Mexico attorney general, denied that her state had changed its interpretation of the accounting and delivery of water under the compact.
“We are in compact compliance,” Bond said in emailed comments. Referring to Texas’ request pending before the high court, she added, “We would not speculate on any ‘true motives’ for the Supreme Court action. It would appear they want more water delivered to them than their compact entitlement.”
Southern New Mexico farmers have long turned to pumping groundwater under drought conditions, as has the nearby city of El Paso and others in Texas, Bond said. Those drawing water from the river have been found to have water rights that predate the Rio Grande Project, she said.
Texas Suit Against Oklahoma
The Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) in Texas has been thwarted in its attempts to buy water from sources within Oklahoma. This tort was started in 2007 in response to a ruling by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Water Conservation Storage Commission, which established a moratorium on out-of-state water sales approved by the Oklahoma Legislature. The TRWD is appealing the moratorium on constitutional grounds.
According to an Associated Press article by Tim Talley, a federal court in Oklahoma City dismissed the suit and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the lower court. According to Talley the 10th Circuit found that another multi-state agreement, the 1978 Red River Compact between Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas “insulates Oklahoma water statutes from interstate commerce challenges involving surface water subject to the compact.” The Red River flows along the Texas-Oklahoma border. Curiously, the western most headwaters of the Red River, the Tierra Blanca Creek and the Frio Draw, which combine to form the Prairie Dog Town Fork, are located in New Mexico.
On 04 January 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the 10th Circuit opinion.
Texas wants to buy part of the surplus water from the Red River tributaries in Oklahoma. The TRWD claims that withdrawing water from the Red River itself is not financially feasible because of salinity issues. At the present time there may not be much water of any kind available in the Red River, as indicated by the picture below labelled ‘Red River, TX’ taken at an unidentified location this month (January 2013).
Drought Conditions in New Mexico and Oklahoma
Drought conditions in Oklahoma and New Mexico are worse than in Texas, although New Mexico has less exceptional drought area that the other two states. The three categories of severe drought and worse are 50% for Texas, 93% for New Mexico and 100% for Oklahoma. (The numbers are for percentage of land area.)
Click on graphics for larger images.
Texas Has Internal Water Problems As Well
All of Texas’ water squabbles are not with neighboring states. The Colorado River, entirely within Texas (not that other Colorado River of Grand Canyon fame), has a series of impoundments called the Highland Lakes which provide flood control and drinking water for the city of Austin. For the second year in a row the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has announced that, absent rainfall changes, there will be no water released from the reservoirs for irrigation use downstream. In November and December the total water flows into the lakes was less than 10% of historical averages. The graphic below summarizes the comparisons for full year data.
More on Western Water
Global Economic Intersection contributor Sig Silber has recently posted a comprehensive summary of water usage issues and history for the western U.S. We are expecting one or more detailed analysis articles on the Texas-New Mexico dispute from Sig in the coming weeks.
- Drought-Hit Texas Sues New Mexico And Oklahoma Over River Water Access (Jeff Spross, Think Progress.org, 17 January 2013))
- Texas, New Mexico tangle over water (Michael Haederle, Los Angeles Times, 25 January 2013)
- Texas Fires Shot in Water War (John Fleck, ABQ Journal, 09 January 2013)
- MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE COMPLAINT, COMPLAINT, AND BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF
MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE COMPLAINT – STATE OF TEXAS v. STATE OF NEW MEXICO and STATE OF COLORADO (Brief filed January 2013, in The Supreme Court of the Unitded States)
- US Supreme Court to consider lawsuit involving Texas water district effort to buy Okla. water (Tim Talley, Associated Press, The Republic, 04 January 2013)
- LCRA could cut off Highland Lakes water to most farmers this year if drought conditions don’t improve (Lower Colorado River Authority web site, 08 January 2013)
- Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting (Sig Silber, GEI Analysis, 03 January 2013)