Pecos River fight faces Supreme Court test

Tim Ryan
Courthouse News

This story was first published Jan. 27 by Courthouse News.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear arguments on the management of the Pecos River in the aftermath of a 2014 tropical storm.

The Pecos River starts near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and flows south into Texas, where it joins with the Rio Grande.

The two states negotiated a compact in the 1940s that governed the management of the river, with New Mexico agreeing not to deplete the river’s flow.

The Pecos River Highway Bridge is on U.S. Highway 90, in the vicinity of Langtry and near the Amistad Reservoir in Val Verde County, Texas. (Credit: Jim Evans via Wikipedia)

Texas in 1974 brought a lawsuit over the compact under the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction and the case has been live on the high court’s docket ever since. Each year, the court-appointed river master publishes a report calculating New Mexico’s obligations based on a formula for calculating how much water New Mexico must allow to flow across Texas’ border.

Hurricane Odile hit the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico seven years ago, causing widespread damage. A weakened version of the storm delivered downpours and flooding across the American Southwest.

As a result of the storm, the Red Bluff Reservoir, which sits along the Pecos River near the New Mexico-Texas border, swelled to capacity. Texas asked New Mexico to hold some of the Pecos water to which Texas was entitled under the compact until Red Bluff could hold it.

New Mexico agreed, holding about 51,000 acre-feet of water in the Brantley Reservoir, about 50 miles upstream from Red Bluff. Texas gradually released water from Red Bluff, and New Mexico did the same from Brantley starting in August 2015, after concerns over flooding abated.

By that time, however, the water had been in the reservoir for so long that a significant amount had evaporated. In response to a motion from New Mexico, the river master granted New Mexico delivery credits in 2018 to account for the amount of water that evaporated from the Brantley Reservoir back in 2015.

More:A history of Pecos River water rights fight between New Mexico and Texas

Texas objected, arguing it should not be held responsible for the water loss and that the river master does not have the authority to retroactively amend past reports. Based on these arguments, the Lone Star State filed a motion in December 2018 seeking review of the river master’s decision.

“Substantively, that result defies the compact, this court’s amended decree and common sense,” a brief Texas filed in December 2019 states. “Procedurally, it flouts the rules this court set in the amended decree.”

The court agreed to set oral arguments in the dispute “in due course.” As usual, the court did not explain its reasoning for taking up the case.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment on the decision.