El Paso Water lawsuit against New Mexico Environment Department will stay in Texas courts

By: - August 1, 2023 4:10 am
The cracked riverbed lays exposed in El Paso, Texas, on May 23, 2022.

The cracked riverbed lays exposed in El Paso, Texas, on May 23, 2022. The riverbed below Elephant Butte Reservoir is often empty for most of the year, as the river only runs during irrigation season, which is shortened by drought. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

A Texas judge ordered last week that a lawsuit against New Mexico environment authorities brought by El Paso Water will continue in Texas courts. 

The dispute stems from the water utility fighting a $1.2 million fine from the New Mexico Environment Department for violating state water quality laws. 

The fine came after a 2021 spill, where the utility diverted what amounted to 1.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the Rio Grande riverbed near Sunland Park, NM. 

Two sewer mains burst after heavy storms, and the spill continued for months until their replacements were installed.

Sewage spill fine still tied up in Texas courts

Near where the water was diverted, Rio Grande meanders across the Texas and New Mexico state line multiple times.

Attorneys for El Paso Water argue that New Mexico doesn’t have any authority to fine the utility for the spill, that authority belongs to federal and Texas state officials. 

Environment department lawyers argued that the spill violated New Mexico water quality laws.

In a July 18 ruling, federal Judge David Briones found the New Mexico Environment Department “projected itself across state lines.” 

He found those actions – such as touring the site in El Paso and sending compliance orders  – met the threshold to continue the lawsuit in the federal Western District of Texas. 

“New Mexico purposefully directed its conduct at Texas,” Briones wrote, denying the environment department’s request to dismiss the case brought by El Paso Water.

The New Mexico administrative process for the pollution fine will be put on indefinite hold as all parties await what may happen in Texas courts. 

The next hearing has not been scheduled in the case.

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.