Southern Regional Water Program

Research, Extension & Education Water Quality Programs through the Land Grant University System

Water Quantity and Policy In New Mexico

Consistent with its Spanish heritage, New Mexico water is administered by a doctrine of Prior Appropriation. For over a thousand years, southwestern Native Americans managed their water by partitioning it through developed ditch systems. Spanish settlers in the Southwest introduced the principles of Prior Appropriation in the acequia, or community ditch systems that were developed. Anglo migration to the West provided further impetus to define the doctrine. Under such administration, a person who takes water for beneficial use establishes an “appropriation” for that water. The date in time the water use is developed establishes the priority of that use in relation to other senior or junior priority rights. In other words, “First in time, first in right.”

When New Mexico territory was claimed by the United States, public control over its water resources was recognized. The State Legislature’s Water Code of 1907 confirmed, “all natural waters…within the limits of the state of New Mexico belong to the public and are subject to appropriation for beneficial use”. Improved technology in the late 1920’s lead to development of vast underground water resources, opening new areas to irrigated agriculture. Comprehensive groundwater laws followed in 1931.

Conditions in New Mexico

Today, several factors compromise the pioneering water legislation that guided New Mexico water management through the 20th century. Those factors include a rapidly growing population, several years of drought condition, federal claims to stream flow requirements for endangered species, inter-state compacts for water delivery, Native American claims of historic beneficial use, and more.

Considered legal property, a water right is protected by the U.S. Bill of Rights. With growing demand, determination of individual water rights has become a priority for the state to protect the property of water users. The Office of the State Engineer is currently adjudicating water rights in all of New Mexico’s major river basins. Even after 100 years of prior appropriation law, the water right must be awarded through the legal system. New demands for water create an urgency to allocate those historic rights. It is, however, the administration of sound legislation to establish the first in time… principle. Adjudication will also support the reality that water in an arid land is finite.

The statewide average annual precipitation is 14 inches. The range varies significantly from north to south. Snowmelt from northern New Mexico and parts of Colorado provides most of the state’s in-flow. That stream flow is confined and diverted for agriculture, municipal and industrial uses in nearly all the State’s river basins.

Community Programs

New Mexico is one of the first western states to have a Drought Management Plan. Extension’s role in drought management is to assist farmers/ranchers implement drought mitigation practices that will sustain the enterprise. During periods of drought, agents in affected areas provide ground truth verification for Palmer Drought Index reports. The Palmer Index determines the drought status of specific climate zones. Each level of drought condition has planned mitigation activities for designated agencies.

Resources and Programs

New Mexico State University (NMSU) provides research, education, and extension programs to assist state and federal agencies, industry, communities and individuals in dealing with adjudication and water rights. The NMSU Water Task Force and the NMSU Range Task Force serve special project needs having statewide implication for the allocation and conservation of New Mexico water resources.

Extension Outreach

NMSU Cooperative Extension Service advises citizens of New Mexico on issues of water rights, adjudication, and declaration of water basins. Local Extension agents continue to be involved in regional water planning, with support from specialists.

A cooperative effort between the Office of the State Engineer, New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, and Cooperative Extension Service provides educational workshops and meetings to landowners involved in adjudication. A planned series of targeted communities in the Lower Rio Grande basin are currently receiving this jointly sponsored assistance.


Here are some selected research projects on New Mexico water issues:

Development of Decision Support Tools for Water Conservation in the Rio Grande Basin, Dr. Robert Sanderson, Associate Professor, Pesticides, Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Weed Science Department, College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

Institutional Incentives for Efficient Water Use in Agriculture, Dr. Frank Ward, Professor, Natural Resources, Agricultural Economics Department, College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

Developing Tools to Optimize Beneficial Use of Water in the Rio Grande Basin, Dr. Rhonda Skaggs, Professor, Agriculture Policy, Agricultural Economics Department, College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

College and University Education

Youth and continuing adult education are critical to develop new talent and human resources to address the water quality issues of the future. Educational curricula in water quantity and policy are available within several departments at New Mexico State University. Key departments include:

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