Skip to content Skip to footer

SCOTUS Freezes States’ Efforts to Resolve Water Conflict

What Happened?

On June 21, 2024, the Supreme Court narrowly held that three states could not enter a consent decree to settle their interstate water dispute without the support of the intervening federal government. The ruling halts the agreement between Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado to settle Texas’s claims and reconfigure water allocation under the Rio Grande Compact going forward. The decision frustrates multi-year efforts by the states to fairly apportion shrinking water supplies and continues uncertainty for water users dependent on flows from the Rio Grande. More generally, the decision highlights the federal government’s power in cases arising under interstate compacts where federal interests are “inextricably intertwined” with the outcome.

Background

In 2013, Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado, claiming that New Mexico’s increased groundwater pumping was diminishing flows from the Rio Grande, unfairly shorting water allocated to the Lonestar state. This claim arose under the Rio Grande Compact, a 1938 allocation agreement between the three states that depend on the Rio Grande’s waters. The Supreme Court allowed the federal government, although not a party to the Compact, to intervene in the dispute in 2014, based on the federal interests in delivering water to Mexico under a 1906 treaty, in operating a Bureau of Reclamation reservoir and irrigation project closely connected to Compact compliance, and in fulfilling potential federal obligations to Indian tribes. The Supreme Court held that the federal government’s interests were “inextricably intertwined” with the case.

Since that decision, the states sought a compromise, recognizing that the 1938 Compact failed to predict severe droughts and dwindling water supplies, new circumstances that require adaptation. Despite this negotiated solution, the federal government refused to sign the agreement. The federal government claimed that the settlement undermines the Compact’s plain language, which cannot be modified without congressional approval, and that the negotiated agreement would impose new obligations on the federal reservoir and irrigation project. Based on its intervenor status, the federal government asked the Supreme Court to reject the deal in the absence of its consent.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Jackson explained that the Court’s 2018 decision to allow federal claims in the case to proceed “leads inexorably” to the federal government’s approval being necessary before a valid resolution. Justice Gorsuch, writing for the dissent, cautioned that this deference to the intervenor risks federalizing interstate water disputes and limiting the necessary discretion for states to independently manage their waters. Despite previously authoring a unanimous 2018 decision that green-lighted the federal claims, his dissent pointed back to “a century’s worth” of precedent, holding that the Reclamation Act requires the federal government to comply with state control of water resources and not to assert incompatible federal interests. The majority reasoned, by contrast, that the federal government’s interest was particular to the Compact, where compliance depends on federal action.

Analysis

The Court’s acknowledgment of the federal interest in the three states aligning Rio Grande Compact compliance with contemporary water realities is expressly tailored to the unique federal role in this situation. The problem the Court focused on was the proposed resolution’s failure to include the federal government, given its intervenor status and its integral role in managing a reservoir and irrigation project essential to the Compact. This does not authorize federal interference in all interstate water compacts, as the dissent fears, but others may be “inextricably intertwined” with federal interests. Still, the pointed dissent may signal that a significant court minority stands ready to guard state control of water resources when the federal government overreaches. The decision’s immediate impact will perpetuate uncertainty for water users in all three states as the parties are forced back to trial or the negotiating table.

© 2024 Beveridge & Diamond PC
by: Collin Gannon, Karen M. Hansen, J. Amber Ahmed, Barbara M.R. Marvin, and Graham H. Pough of Beveridge & Diamond PC

For more news on Interstate Water Conflicts, visit the NLR Environmental, Energy, & Resources section.

The post SCOTUS Freezes States’ Efforts to Resolve Water Conflict appeared first on The National Law Forum.