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The Compact Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that no State shall, without the consent of Congress, enter into any agreement or compact with another State. U.S. Const. art. I, § 10, cl. 3. Congress’s approval serves to prevent any compact or agreement between any two States, which might affect injuriously the interests of the others. It also ensures that the Legislature can check any infringement of the rights of the national government. So, for example, if a proposed interstate agreement might lead to friction with a foreign country or injure the interests of another region of our own, Congress may withhold its approval. But once Congress gives its consent, a compact between States—like any other federal statute—becomes the law of the land.
To resolve their disputes over water rights in the Rio Grande, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, with Congress's approval, signed the Rio Grande Compact. The Compact requires Colorado to deliver a specified amount of water annually to New Mexico at the state line and directs New Mexico to deliver a specified amount of water to the Elephant Butte Reservoir. The Reservoir was completed in 1916 as part of the Federal Government's Rio Grande Project and plays a central role in fulfilling the United States's obligations to supply water under a 1906 treaty with Mexico as well as under several agreements with downstream water districts in New Mexico and Texas (Downstream Contracts). Texas brought this original action complaining that New Mexico has violated the Compact by allowing downstream New Mexico users to siphon off water below the Reservoir in ways not anticipated in the Downstream Contracts. The United States intervened and filed a complaint with parallel allegations. The Special Master filed a report recommending that the United States' complaint be dismissed in part because the Compact does not confer on the United States the power to enforce its terms.
May the United States pursue its claims for Compact violations?
This Court, using its unique authority to mold original actions, has sometimes permitted the federal government to participate in compact suits to defend “distinctively federal interests” that a normal litigant might not be permitted to pursue in traditional litigation. While this permission should not be confused with license, several considerations taken collectively led to the conclusion that the United States may pursue the particular claims it has pleaded in this case. First, the Compact was inextricably intertwined with the Rio Grande Project and the Downstream Contracts. Second, New Mexico has conceded in pleadings and at oral argument that the United States plays an integral role in the Compact's operation. Third, a breach of the Compact could jeopardize the federal government's ability to satisfy its treaty obligations to Mexico. Fourth, the United States has asserted its Compact claims in an existing action brought by Texas, seeking substantially the same relief and without that State's objection.