Let's Talk About Water Rights In New Mexico

Water is serious business in New Mexico! And we need to approach these issues with wisdom and creativity. An Independent voice, like Larry Marker’s, will be invaluable in this important issue. Our surface water is already allocated and there is not enough to meet requirement. In addition, New Mexico’s groundwater faces increasing competition from cities, farming, industry, recreation, and the environment. We need good solutions for our limited resource in these areas: 

  • conservation
  • protection
  • augmentation
  • management

What We Need To Know About The Laws

New Mexicans need to understand the unique history, use and laws with regards to water in our state. Complicated, to say the least. Our current water code, which was established before we became a state, has five basic principles. They are 

  • All the water in the state belongs to the public. Only those with water rights may legally use water, and those rights are considered private property.
  • Older, or senior, water rights have priority. During dry years, senior rights holders would receive their full allotment of water, and junior owners’ use would be curtailed, although this has rarely been invoked.
  • Water must be put to “beneficial use,” which generally means irrigation or domestic, commercial and industrial uses.
  • Water-right holders can change the purpose of use or divert water from a different place if the State Engineer or a court determines it won’t impair other water rights, harm public welfare, or run counter to water conservation.
  • Owners can forfeit their water rights for non-use, under certain conditions, or for wasting water. ¹

This is somewhat simplified since there are also several interstate Compacts, Federal Laws, Federal Reserved Rights and Environmental Laws that must be followed as well. 

Where Our Water Comes From

Most of us know that New Mexico receives very little precipitation every year; on average less than 10 inches! So we rely heavily on our surface and groundwater. Our groundwater and surface water are interconnected and dependent on each other. They are linked together in a hydrologic cycle where water evaporates from the surface, rises into the atmosphere, and falls back to the surface as precipitation. Precipitation that does not evaporate or seep into the ground runs off the surface as surface water flow. Some of this flow eventually reaches groundwater aquifers through infiltration. Therefore, withdrawals from one (surface water or groundwater) can affect the other. And precipitation benefits both. 


This map shows the six main water basins in New Mexico that make up our surface water. (map source) 

NM water basins
nm aquifers

But most of our usable fresh water comes from aquifers. These natural, underground water containers replenish very slowly. (map source)

How Do We Use Our Water

The agriculture industry is the largest consumer of water in NM. Stream bank usage is also quite significant. This refers to irrigated acreage. Other industries and commercial usage is a small percentage of water use. Finally if you compare withdrawal and consumption data, it would show that a good portion of the usage is actually returned to the system.¹

Let's Talk About Water Conservation

When we save water, we are preserving a limited resource. Every gallon we save is one that doesn’t need to be taken from a water source, such as a reservoir. This helps to ensure that there is enough water for everyone and for future generations.

We need to be looking for new ways to conserve water in our dry climate. It’s a vital resource and we need to work together to preserve it. 

There are some wonderful resources on the website of the Office of the State Engineer for 

We should think about adopting a ‘waste nothing’ attitude when it comes to water. We should consider drip irrigation techniques rather than relying on flood irrigation, which loses at lot of water to evaporation. 

The removal of non-native plants, like salt cedars, along rivers could lead to water savings of 13,000 acre feet a year for every 10,000 acres of salt cedar removed. This is because these plants are more thirsty than native plants, and thus require more water to survive. By removing them, we can reduce the overall water demand in an area, leading to saved water.¹

By brainstorming ideas for waste water reuse, such as “grey water” systems, and looking for other  innovative water conservation techniques we can preserve our most valuable resource here in NM.