Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: NM Water Rights Ruling

My education in economics included a lot of discussion of the importance of clarity in property rights regimes. You’ve got to know who owns what.

New Mexico water law in this regard is a tangled mess. In large areas of the state, we lack formal adjudication of water rights. We do know some things about who is entitled to use how much water, but the very important question of the priority of those rights – who is first in the water use pecking order when there is a shortage – is undetermined.

I had a story in this morning’s paper (sub/ad req) about an important NM Appeals Court decision that frankly does little to clarify the situation, other than throwing out what some had hoped would provide a short cut to resolving the uncertainty. Turns out the short cut was illegal:

The ruling throws the water rights problem, which has left a shadow of uncertainty about allocating the scarce resource in arid New Mexico, back into the hands of the state Legislature.

It can take decades for courts to sort out water rights entitlements in New Mexico river basins. During serious drought, the problem is that in many parts of the state, there is no mechanism for determining who is entitled to water and whose use will be curtailed.

That problem is particularly acute on the stretch of the Rio Grande between Cochiti Dam and Socorro, where farm communities and the Albuquerque metro area have an uneasy coexistence when it comes to water.

“In the middle Rio Grande, you have huge uncertainty,” said Peter White, a Santa Fe water lawyer who was not involved in the case.