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Published on June 23, 2024
Supreme Court Sides with Federal Government in Rio Grande Water Dispute, Texas Farmers Left in UncertaintySource: Glysiak, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The simmering dispute over the rightful allocation of the Rio Grande's waters has boiled over following a recent Supreme Court decision. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed his disappointment after the court gave the federal government the power to nullify an agreement that promised to quell long-standing tensions between Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. The pact had aimed to solidify Texas farmers' access to a fair share of the water. In a statement provided to the press, Paxton lamented the 5-4 ruling as a move that "incorrectly granted the federal government even more power over the States."

The roots of the legal brawl trace back to 2013, when Texas took New Mexico to court over the waters of the Rio Grande, asserting rights established in the 1938 Rio Grande Compact. A decade of litigation seemed to come to an amenable conclusion, with a Special Master appointed by the SCOTUS endorsing the states' joint resolution as preferable. "[I]t is difficult to envision a resolution to this matter that might be superior to the Consent Decree [that Texas seeks]," the Special Master stated.

However, that perceived resolution unraveled with the Supreme Court tilting toward the federal government's objection. The Biden Administration has claimed the right to intervene and potentially block state-level settlements of interstate disputes. The administration's stance has resulted in the freezing of the earlier agreement, which now leaves Texas's farmers in a state of limbo regarding their water supply. Justice Gorsuch's penned dissent pointed to a historical breach: "The Court’s decision is inconsistent with how original jurisdiction cases normally proceed," Gorsuch said. "It defies 100 years of this Court’s water law jurisprudence. And it represents a serious assault on the power of States to govern, as they always have, the water rights of users in their jurisdictions."

Despite a majority of the Supreme Court's ruling against the three-state water agreement, Paxton remains undeterred. "We will continue to work to ensure that the rights of Texas farmers are protected during the next steps of the process," he assured, signaling the Lone Star State's intent to pursue further legal avenues to secure its water interests. With the Supreme Court's decision and Paxton's resolve, the ripple effects are likely to influence the landscape of federal-state relations as well as agricultural practices across the involved states.