Supreme Court rejects Rio Grande settlement

By Jennifer Yachnin | 06/21/2024 10:13 AM EDT

Legal observers have suggested the decision could grant the federal government new power to control water flows in drought-stricken regions.

The Rio Grande flowing near Albuquerque

The Rio Grande flows near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Susan Montoya Bryan/AP

The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a state-authored settlement in the long-running legal battle over the waters of the Rio Grande, siding with the Biden administration’s objections to the deal.

The court ruled 5-4 to rebuff the proposed settlement among the three Western states named in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado over how to account for water use in the Rio Grande Basin.

Legal observers have suggested the court’s decision could potentially grant the federal government new power to control the flow of water in drought-stricken regions — including the Colorado River Basin — by requiring states to seek the agreement of federal water managers when settling intra-basin disputes.


Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson led the majority opinion. Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett dissented.

Texas officials had accused New Mexico water users of overusing the Rio Grande for years, before filing a lawsuit in 2013. The two states and Colorado share the waterway under a 1938 compact.

Their settlement would have allowed the states to establish a new reporting system to determine whether Texas is receiving its full share of the river. But the Justice Department successfully argued that the settlement would have violated the 1938 compact.

The Biden administration had also raised concerns about how the deal would affect operations of the Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir in New Mexico and other federal facilities along the Rio Grande.