Holistic Water Governance Reforms
New Mexico faces serious water problems as population increases, climate warms, water demands grow, and water sources shrink. Since current water law was established in 1907, much has changed, including laws in a patchwork way. New Mexico needs a thoroughgoing review and update of its legal and operational means for governing water.
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Description of the Issue
New Mexico's water law was built piecemeal over decades using model state law statutes prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation and required the be state law as a condition for federal water development, which means construction of dams and irrigation projects. Some of the state law dates back to the 1907 Territorial Water Code, which was required in order to proceed with construction of Elephant Butte. Other significant chunks of law were added to provide for regulation of groundwater pumping to protect adjacent rivers and artesian aquifers. Of course, many other specific amendments and additions have been made by the Legislature and signed by the Governor over the years.
New Mexico's law is prior appropriation, which means any senior right is superior to any junior water right. The water use is immaterial. Theoretically, junior rights would be curtailed to the extent and as necessary that the senior rights would have a full supply. In practice, New Mexico has no stomach for such a system of priority administration, with the default being informal shortage sharing or continued overpumping of groundwater and aquifer depletion.
In most New Mexico examples, no such bill has come due. Exceptions are the Pecos River Compact Amended Decree in 1982, which required that New Mexico never again owe Pecos River water to Texas and subsequently cost over $200 million in State funds to assure compliance. Such a bill will likely result from the current Lower Rio Grande litigation where Texas and the USA are both suing New Mexico in the US Supreme Court over its use of water below Elephant Butte Dam.
One thoughtful elected official believes that New Mexico must implement transformative change in its governance of its water, including in its water law, in order to survive. Piecemeal attempts to amend state water law have been criticized as "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." Holistic water reform is the alternative to piecemeal fixes--or continuing to try to get by without doing much at all--the current practice of NM's state water quantity administration agencies.
Leadership is required. Advocay is needed to help gather the political will to take needed actions.
Even Texas puts water requirements to meet basic human needs as the highest of water use priorities. What will we do, New Mexico?