New Mexico’s dysfunctional water rights administration

The Albuquerque Journal’s Mark Oswald notes a remarkable milestone that passed today:

SANTA FE — A water-rights lawsuit that is said to be the nation’s longest-running piece of litigation reached a crucial milestone here Friday, with a judge’s final decree that added only five pages to the thousands upon thousands generated since the proceedings known as the “Aamodt Case” started in 1966.

In what U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson and lawyers called a momentous occasion, the judge’s decree adjudicates water rights among four Indian pueblos and non-Indian residents in northern Santa Fe County.

It took 51 years to sort out who is entitled to how much water in the Pojoaque Basin north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. 51 years. It is not a very large basin.

In a paper published a few years back, my University of New Mexico colleague Reed Benson had this to say about the “doctrine of prior appropriation”, the legal tool by which we are supposed to be determining water rights in New Mexico and across much of the western United States:

As a legal doctrine, PA has lost its force. Like the centenarian who founded the company but now has only an honorific title, Prior Appropriation has more symbolic importance than practical influence.

So we slog through “settlements” like Aamodt, and we wrestle poorly with what we here in New Mexico call “Active Water Resource Management“, a sort of alternative administration scheme that we pronounce “A-worm” without a trace of irony and we muddle along. Because chrissakes 51 years? For one of the smaller, easier basins?


  1. The “dysfunction” applies to much more than the enforcement, or lack thereof, of prior appropriation. The judge signed a final decree while the State Engineer has yet to issue a decision on the Top of the World water transfer protest by Taos County—water rights that must be in place by September 15, 2017 or the Aamodt Settlement is toast.

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