The state will pay a total of $2.4 million to two law firms as a seven-year water dispute between New Mexico and Texas inches closer to a trial.
Each law firm received a $1.2 million sole-source contract, which was not open to competitive bidding.
Critics say sole-source contracts, similar to a monopoly, can drive up prices because there’s no competition. Critics also say they can lead to cronyism when a favored person is chosen rather than the most qualified.
The state Attorney General’s Office, however, said in a legislative newsletter the sole-source contracts were necessary because litigation would be disrupted if new law firms came in at this late stage.
The trial is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2021.
When asked about the hefty fees paid to the Albuquerque and Denver firms, Matt Baca, a spokesman for the attorney general, said they are “some of the best water lawyers and federal court litigators in the country.”
“The trial team is working aggressively to put New Mexico in the best position to prevail at trial,” Baca said in an emailed statement. “Our focus heading to trial is fighting to protect precious water resources for farmers, tribes, and all New Mexico families.”
The U.S. Supreme Court case involves complex legal wrangling but is simple at its heart.
Texas has accused New Mexico of letting farmers pump groundwater for irrigation near the Rio Grande, reducing the river flow and denying Texas its full share of water under an 82-year-old pact.
New Mexico contends Texas has always received its full water allotment, despite farmers pulling groundwater north of the Texas border.
If New Mexico loses, it might have to shell out as much as $1 billion in damages and repay Texas more than 3 million acre-feet of water.
The Supreme Court appointed a “special master” to oversee the case.
Two years ago, the special master set deadlines for the legal battle, ordering that discovery of new evidence would end in the summer of 2020 and the case would then go to trial in the fall. The trial since has been bumped to next year.
The court battle is based on the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, which calls for the river’s water to be apportioned fairly among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has accused Texas of mismanaging its water and blaming New Mexico for its shortage.
He also has bashed the federal government, saying it failed to clear out vegetation and built-up sand that obstructed water flow into Texas.