The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 15 Dec 2020

Master of the Pecos River

The world is so complicated! It has so many things in it that I could not even have imagined.

Yesterday I learned that since 1949 there has been a compact between New Mexico and Texas about how to divide up the water in the Pecos River, which flows from New Mexico to Texas, and then into the Rio Grande.

Map of the above,
showing the Pecos River and Rio Grande, both flowing roughly from
northwest to southeast.  The Grande flows south past Albuquerque, NM,
and then becomes the border between Texas and Mexico.  The Pecos flows
through New Mexico past Brantley Lake and Carlsbad, then into the
Texas Red Bluff Reservoir, and eventually into the Amistad Reservoir
on the Texas-Mexico border.

New Mexico is not allowed to use all the water before it gets to Texas. Texas is entitled to receive a certain amount.

There have been disputes about this in the past (the Supreme Court case has been active since 1974), so in 1988 the Supreme Court appointed Neil S. Grigg, a hydraulic engineer and water management expert from Colorado, to be “River Master of the Pecos River”, to mediate the disputes and account for the water. The River Master has a rulebook, which you can read online. I don't know how much Dr. Grigg is paid for this.

In 2014, Tropical Storm Odile dumped a lot of rain on the U.S. Southwest. The Pecos River was flooding, so Texas asked NM to hold onto the Texas share of the water until later. (The rulebook says they can do this.) New Mexico arranged for the water that was owed to Texas to be stored in the Brantley Reservoir.

A few months later Texas wanted their water. "OK," said New Mexico. “But while we were holding it for you in our reservoir, some of it evaporated. We will give you what is left.”

“No,” said Texas, “we are entitled to a certain amount of water from you. We want it all.”

But the rule book says that even though the water was in New Mexico's reservoir, it was Texas's water that evaporated. (Section C5, “Texas Water Stored in New Mexico Reservoirs”.)

Too bad Texas!

[ Addendum 20230528: To my amazement this case has come to my attention again, because legal blogger Adam Unikowsky cited it as one of “the [ten] least significant cases of the decade”. I wrote a brief followup about why I enjoy Unikowsky's Legal Newsletter.  ]

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