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US Supreme Court rejects states' settlement over Rio Grande waters



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By Nate Raymond

June 21 (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a settlement between three states resolving a decade-long dispute over how to divvy up water from the Rio Grande River, finding it failed to account for the federal government's interests.

The court in a 5-4 ruling held that a consent decree that would allocate the Rio Grande's waters between Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado would wrongly if approved dispose of claims raised by the federal government without its consent.

The court had earlier in the litigation in 2018 allowed the federal government to intervene in the lawsuit, which was filed by Texas against the other two states, to assert claims similar to Texas's that New Mexico was excessively pumping groundwater from the Rio Grande.

The settlement would have codified a method of determining how to allocate the Rio Grande's waters to each state. But the federal government objected, citing concerns about groundwater pumping by New Mexico that could interfere with an irrigation system run by the federal government.

Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in an opinion joined by the court's two other liberals and conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said the federal government was still today advancing the same claims as it did in 2018.

Its interest were unique, she said, and like those of the states' arose out of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, an agreement that apportions the river's waters among them.

To ensure Texas receives its share, the compact relies on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to operate an irrigation system in New Mexico.

"Having acknowledged those interests, and having allowed the United States to intervene to assert them, we cannot now allow Texas and New Mexico to leave the United States up the river without a paddle," Jackson wrote.

Representatives for the states did not respond to requests for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Texas had taken issue with the extent groundwater was being pumped from the river for farming along southern New Mexico. Drought and climate change have made the river's waters less plentiful in the decades since the 1938 compact.

Friday's decision rejected a recommendation to approve the settlement by U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy, a member of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals assigned to serve as a special master in the dispute. The Supreme Court relies on such special masters for disputes between states, which it has original jurisdiction over.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a dissenting opinion joined by the court's remaining three conservatives, said the court should have followed Melloy's recommendation and accepted the settlement and allow the federal government to pursue its claims instead in the lower courts if it wanted.

Gorsuch said the decision "represents a serious assault on the power of States to govern, as they always have, the water rights of users in their jurisdictions."

"I fear the majority's shortsighted decision will only make it harder to secure the kind of cooperation between federal and state authorities reclamation law envisions and many river systems require," he wrote.

The case is Texas v. New Mexico, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 22O141.

For the United States: Frederick Liu of the U.S. Department of Justice

For Texas: Lanora Pettit of the Texas Office of the Attorney General

For New Mexico: Jeffrey J. Wechsler of Montgomery & Andrews



Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston

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