The tension is expected to be thick Thursday as top water officials from New Mexico, Colorado and Texas gather for an annual meeting focused on management of the Rio Grande.
Texas and New Mexico are in the middle of a legal battle before the U.S. Supreme Court over groundwater pumping along the border. The federal government is weighing in, claiming that groundwater falls under its jurisdiction and should be considered part of the massive system of canals and dams that deliver water to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas.
It could be years before the court makes a decision, but some experts say the case could set precedent when it comes to state rights in the drought-stricken West.
In the meantime, farmers in southern New Mexico who are deciding whether to plant crops or leave their fields fallow are on "pins and needles," said Scott Verhines, New Mexico's top water official.
"Certainly the litigation, the threat of litigation, the fear of what's going to come out of all this is clouding everybody's ability to work toward a solution," he said. "I think very unfortunately that we find ourselves fighting and not solving."
Verhines will be among those gathering for the Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting. The decades-old compact spells out how much river water the states must share.
Texas first took its case to the Supreme Court more than a year ago, asking that New Mexico stop pumping and the state be forced to send more water to farmers in El Paso.
New Mexico maintains its meeting its obligations under the compact, but the federal government contends in a recent motion to intervene in the case that groundwater pumping in New Mexico is tapping the shallow aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the Rio Grande and flow to Texas.
With New Mexico entering its fourth year of severe drought, water managers acknowledge that farmers will again have little irrigation water coming from the river and will be forced to use groundwater wells to irrigate their crops.