Human Uses of Water


  • Dino Cervantes, Cervantes Enterprises
  • Kent Cravens, NM Oil and Gas Association
  • John Stomp, Albuquerque Municipal Water Authority
  • NM Office of State Engineer staff
  • Bruce Thomson, UNM

How Do We Use Our Water?

The New Mexico Office of the State Engineer (OSE) tabulates water withdrawals in nine categories:

  1. Irrigated agriculture
  2. Public water supply
  3. Reservoir evaporation
  4. Self-supplied commercial
  5. Self-supplied domestic (domestic wells)
  6. Self-supplied industrial
  7. Self-supplied livestock
  8. Self-supplied mining
  9. Self-supplied power

What does “self-supplied” mean? Water users are self-supplied if they have their own water source, and thus do not buy it from a local utility. For example, if a company has its own wells, its water use falls under “self-supplied commercial.” But, if it purchases its water from its local water utility, it falls under “public water supply.”

As the following chart illustrates, agriculture taps the largest share of New Mexico’s water by far. Public water supply, which includes residential and business use within municipal water systems, totals eight percent. The third highest use of water is evaporation from reservoirs, at seven percent. This type of evaporation – unlike that which might occur naturally in rivers – is counted as a “withdrawal” since human engineering systems put the water in the reservoirs.  All other uses, including power generation, mining, oil and gas, commercial businesses, and domestic wells combine to five percent of the state’s total water use.

As noted previously, all references to water use refer to it being withdrawn from a surface or groundwater source. Much of the water returns to that source and is thus not truly consumed.

Figure 5-1. Total Use of Surface and Groundwater by Category.1

Economy and Water

Almost all the human uses of water in Figure 5-2 relate, in one way or another, to the state’s economy. Many people instinctively assume that a growing economy leads to increased water use. That is certainly correct in some cases. However, that idea has not born true in New Mexico. Our state’s economy grew 85 percent in the last 19 years. During that same period, total water use declined by 14 percent. The remainder of this chapter looks at water policy issues associated with different economic industries.

Figure 5-2. NM’s State Total Gross Domestic Product and Water Use.2


As noted, the agricultural industry accounts for an estimated 80 percent of New Mexico’s total water withdrawals.3 Much of that water returns to rivers or other water sources and is re-used downstream. As a portion of the state total, agriculture’s percentage increased slightly in recent decades (from 75 percent in 1995). However, the actual volume of water used by the industry steadily declined, from 3.4 million acre-feet in 1995 to 3 million acre-feet in 2010.4 That decline may be due to changes in irrigation technology, farming practices, amount of acreage in production, or other factors.

Figure 5-3. Amount and Percentage of Total NM Water Used by Agricultural Industries5

Future and Economic Impact of Agriculture in New Mexico

An analysis of the state’s 16 regional plans found that the most common solution to predicted water shortfalls was moving water from agriculture to other uses.6Figure 5-4 shows that the population of New Mexico (and, presumably, future demand for water) is growing the fastest in the central Rio Grande Basin where Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces are located. Half of the state’s 33 counties experienced population decline in the last five years, almost all of them rural. In addition, some farmers are choosing to sell their water rights to meet public water supply needs. (See Water Rights Transfers and Markets.) These realities prompt some water advocates to quietly predict a long-term decline in the agricultural industry.

Figure 5-4. Populations in New Mexico River Basins,7 (See basin map.)

At the same time, the agricultural industry in our state is indisputably growing. Unlike much of the rest of the nation, the number of New Mexico farms, young farmers, and minority farmers increased in recent years. The number of young farmers and ranchers (under age 34) rose 47 percent in the last five years. The number of Hispanic-operated farms jumped 45 percent to almost 9,400. With over 24,000 farms, New Mexico has about 43 million acres in farmland.8 Total agricultural net income increased more than a third in the last five years.9

Consequently, according to one study, agriculture in New Mexico translates into about $10.6 billion a year, over 50,000 jobs, and nine percent of the state’s economy. That percentage includes the direct effect of the sale and processing of agricultural products. It also includes the indirect effects of farmers and ranchers buying goods and services from local industries, and the induced effect of those people and businesses re-spending the income they received from the farmers and ranchers. Dairy products made up over 35 percent of agricultural cash receipts in 2012 (more than all food crops combined).10

Affect of Drought on Farmers

While it may be growing, the agricultural industry definitely has its ups and downs. It is highly vulnerable to drought. The 2013 drought led to loss of crop production, fallowed farmland, decreased crop yield and increased groundwater pumping. Farmers reliant on surface water for their irrigation were particularly affected by the dry weather. The 2013 irrigation season in the lower Rio Grande Basin was the shortest on record.12

Livestock producers in New Mexico faired no better last year. Ranchers faced higher feed costs because rangelands could not support the animals. They hauled water, saw worsening range conditions, reduced soil moisture and decreased herd sizes.13 Hundreds of cattle were sold at auction. In response to these drought conditions, the entire New Mexico congressional delegation, including both U.S. Senators and the three U.S. Representatives, jointly announced that 27 counties qualified for emergency loan assistance.

Water Conservation in Agriculture

Because their livelihoods rely on water, many farmers and ranchers strongly support water conservation efforts. Changes in technology enable them to use less water than in previous decades. For example, high plains farmers rely on groundwater pumping. Many who previously used overhead sprinklers now deploy systems that are positioned a few feet or less above the crop, significantly reducing evaporative losses.

Farmers who rely on surface irrigation turn to different solutions, such as lining ditches with concrete, covering canals, and converting to alternative irrigation methods instead of flooding fields. Not all these changes are universally favored, however. When acequias are lined in concrete, less water seeps into the ground to support nearby vegetation or aquifer recharge. If the goal of the ditches is to deliver water to farms, concrete linings are good public policy. But if the goal is also to support the surrounding cottonwood trees and vegetation near the ditch-banks, concrete lining poses a problem. Research conducted in northern New Mexico found that 16 percent of the acequia flow seeped out of the ditchbed and supported vegetation habitat along the ditch as well as groundwater recharge.14

The answer partly depends on region and culture. Irrigators on acequias and community ditches, which are smaller in acreage, are less likely to consider seepage “lost water” since it hydrates the entire floodplain. By contrast, many irrigators in arid southern New Mexico are more likely favor systems that maximize water delivery to crops.

Switching to drip systems, microjet spray, or border flood systems are highly effective conservation strategies for surface and groundwater irrigators.15 However, farmers may be reluctant to make the costly transition to alternative irrigation systems if they have enough water rights to flood their fields. Some say these expensive conversions ask farmers to shoulder the expense of New Mexico’s water delivery obligations to Texas.

Additionally, some researchers and farmers do not favor drip irrigation systems because of concerns about increased salinity in the soils. They favor flood irrigation because it flushes more of the salts from the soil and enables more water to seep into shallow aquifers.


In addition to concerns about the volume of water used in agriculture, the dairy industry in particular has been connected with groundwater contamination in the past. The industry is regulated in an effort to prevent future issues.

Policy Considerations for Agriculture

What are the best ways to encourage water conservation among the different types of agriculture throughout New Mexico? Does it make sense to set concrete conservation targets, and rally the industry around them? How can the industry plan for a future that may have considerably less water than in previous decades? What can be done for or with the agricultural community to advance water rights settlements? To what extent do shortage-sharing agreements (see Shortage-Sharing Agreements) make sense for agricultural communities? What are the challenges? To what extent should farmers be encouraged or discouraged from selling off water rights from agricultural use? (See Water Rights Transfers and Markets.)

Public/Municipal Water Supply

In New Mexico, a combination of municipal water utilities, rural water systems, and mutual domestic water associations provide water to most residences and businesses. These entities provide water for the population centers around the state and are an essential element of the economy now and into the future.  The customer base includes single-family homes, industry, commercial businesses, schools and universities, parks and athletic fields and many other types of uses. Together they make up “public water supply.” Their use has declined somewhat between 1995 and 2010, while the percentage of total has remained about the same. The state’s largest municipal water supplier, Albuquerque  Bernalillo Water Utility Authority, reported record-breaking conservation rates in 2013, so it is likely that the downward trend in public water use may continue beyond the dates available in the following chart.

Figure 5-5. Amount and Total Percentage of NM Water Used by Public Water Supply.17


One way to optimize existing water supplies is to repair and maintain leaky infrastructure. Every day in the United States over six billion gallons of pumped water fails to reach a billed customer. Much of this water is lost due to leakage from over 250,000 water main ruptures that occur every year.18

New Mexico has 650 public water systems, large and small, many of them with aging pipes, inadequate capacity, or limited ability to comply with federal clean water policies.19 For example, water systems in three New Mexico towns were audited in 2009: Las Vegas, Rio Rancho, and Ruidoso.  The audit used criteria developed by the American Water Works Association. “Real water losses” were defined as:

  • Leakage on service meters/lines and leaks in homes
  • Leakage and overflows at storage tank sites
  • Leakage on transmission and distribution mains

The following table illustrates results of the audits.20

Water Loss Audits-2009


Volume of Water Supplied

Volume of Real Losses From Leaks

Losses as Percentage of Total


586 million gallons

102 million gallons


Las Vegas

792 million gallons

210 million gallons


Rio Rancho

4,352 million gallons

596 million gallons


The challenges in the table above are not isolated. The Gila Conservation District applied for funds to repair aging municipal infrastructure and install leak detections systems in southwestern New Mexico.21 The highly publicized 2013 water shortages in Magdalena and Vaughn were not caused by drought but by a neglect of wells (in Magdalena) and a rusting transmission line (in Vaughn). These rural water systems face unique challenges. Commented one reviewer on the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recent infrastructure report card, “We heard story after story of water systems that are held together with duct tape and bailing wire.”22

When capital funds are made available for new systems, some communities lack the resources or knowledge to maintain them, so the new systems do not last as long as they should. Small municipalities may be able to improve their infrastructure with a one-time government grant or loan, but they often lack the dollars to perform regular repairs and upkeep. (See Water Funding and Capital Planning.) One solution could be to create a small water system maintenance group within the New Mexico Environment Department or through the Rural Water Users Association, with dedicated staff who travel and provide maintenance services.23

ASCE New Mexico Infrastructure Report Card-2012




Drinking Water


Many of New Mexico’s potable water systems are deteriorating due to the age of the systems.

Flood Control


The condition of flood control infrastructure in New Mexico varies widely. On balance, 77% of jurisdictional flood control dams are considered deficient or not in satisfactory condition.



Treating wastewater was not, until recent years, a priority in most New Mexico municipalities.

Reusing Water

Another important water resource strategy is to reuse and recycle water. Reuse was previously considered the option of last resort, but public opinion and policies are changing.  Reuse can extend water supplies, but it requires additional infrastructure and more sophisticated systems. Throughout the nation, cities and regions apply treated wastewater to a number of uses. Reuse does not reduce the amount of water used by a community, but instead matches the quality of the water with the need. For example, public parks do not need potable water and therefore non-potable wastewater can be substituted. There are at least three major approaches:

  1. Indirect reuse of treated wastewater is common and somewhat invisible. Water is used in a community, treated in a wastewater treatment plant and then discharged to the environment. Once in the environment, it can be used again, either by the same community or one downstream. For example, Albuquerque’s cleaned wastewater goes into the Rio Grande, where it reflows into acequias or to southern New Mexico farmers, or even to Texas to meet our compact obligations. Use by a downstream community is known as unplanned, or de facto, reuse.
  2. “Purple pipe” direct water reuse (also called “non-potable reuse”) is fairly common throughout the Southwest. Non-potable reclaimed water is distributed in purple pipes to clearly signify that it has not been treated to drinking water standards. The Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Utility Authority has two large reuse projects that deploy treated municipal and industrial wastewater to irrigate golf courses, playgrounds, ball fields and road medians.  A number of smaller communities in New Mexico follow the same practice. Some rural communities, such as Tularosa, provide treated wastewater to farmers for irrigation.
  3. Potable direct water reuse is far less common. Sometimes cynically referred to as “toilet to tap,” this type of system introduces highly purified reused water into the drinking water system. Unlike indirect reuse described above, this treated water does not pass through an environmental barrier (such as a river or ground seepage) before it returns to the drinking water supply. Big Springs, Texas is one of the first cities to use such a system. A similar facility has been designed for Cloudcroft, NM; it should become operational by the end of the year. The practice requires expensive and energy-intensive advanced treatment technologies. It also requires considerable public education so that people are not troubled about drinking the water.

Wastewater can also be used for industrial purposes, such as power generation. For example, the majority of water used at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Facility near Phoenix is wastewater. This facility is a source for electricity in New Mexico, through the Albuquerque-based utility PNM.

Mutual Domestic Water Consumer Associations

There are approximately 250 Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Associations throughout rural communities in New Mexico. Commonly called “mutual domestics,” these local entities are run by an elected board of three or more members. They construct and operate water supply, reuse, storm drainage and wastewater facilities in their communities.

Since 2005, a significant number of mutual domestics located in rural communities collaborated and formed distinct regional entities. They hold a number of shared goals, including:

  • Developing a team of professionals to promote and maintain sound water and wastewater management practices
  • Complying with water reporting requirements
  • Protecting regional assets and water rights
  • Maintaining infrastructure
  • Providing affordable rates to customers
  • Informing the public on water issues

These regional collaborations enable small utilities to operate more efficiently, combine resources and share staff.

Future Public Water Supply

Conservation, re-use, and infrastructure repairs are all important strategies to maximize public water supplies. In addition, many municipal and other water suppliers also focus on future sources of additional water. Some people say that communities must have the ability to move water from one part of the state to another in order to meet the growing needs. Examples include the San Juan-Chama diversion project or the planned Ute pipeline. However, these types of inter-basin water transfers concern some avocates. (See Transfers Across Water Basins and Ute Pipeline Project.)

Another option for future supplies is Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) projects. This approach enables municipalities to store excess water in underground aquifers for later use. The storage is engineered through detention ponds or recharge wells that deliberately add water to shallow aquifers.24 Water stored in aquifers instead of reservoirs does not evaporate. However, it has the drawback of being more difficult to measure and manage.

Aquifer storage and recovery strategies are not deployed much in New Mexico, but Arizona, Nevada and California use ASR extensively. Albuquerque has conducted some small-scale infiltrations projects.25

Policy Considerations for Public Water Supply

To what degree can or should communities explore different re-use options? What are the barriers? To what degree would public perception drive policy? What about conservation targets; do specific goals motivate people to reduce water use?

To what extent should New Mexico explore the viability of aquifer storage and recovery? How can other infrastructure needs be met? And once new infrastructure is installed, how do we make sure communities can maintain it so the capital investment does not have to repeated?  What role should consumer water rates play in financing infrastructure needs?

To what degree do the mutual domestics have the funding and professional support they need to be effective? Can or should more mutual domestics be encouraged to form regional entities?

Mining and Energy

Mining, including oil and gas, used an estimated 41,559 acre-feet of water withdrawals (or one percent of total water use) in 2010. Most of that water was used in metal and potash mines. Within the mining category, the oil and gas industry used about 2,244 acre-feet.26

That figure – like all the water use numbers in this report – reflects the amount of freshwater used. Oil and gas drilling utilizes considerably more brackish (or non-potable) water in its drilling process. This water comes up with the production process and, unless reused by the industry, is re-injected 9,000 to 12,000 feet below the surface. This non-potable “produced water” is the focus of interest as a potential new water source. There are pros and cons to the practice. (See Brackish and Produced Water for more information.)

Historically, the biggest water concerns about the extractive industries are not the amount of water used but rather the potential for groundwater contamination. Consequently, these industries are highly regulated and monitored by state agencies.

Domestic Wells

New Mexico households that are not served by a water utility have domestic wells. The OSE estimates that these wells withdrew a combined total of 28,952 acre-feet in 2010, or less than one percent of total water use in New Mexico. (This estimate is difficult to substantiate since most of the domestic wells have no meters.)

There are roughly 160,000 domestic wells in New Mexico. Some water advocates are concerned that the cumulative affect of domestic wells near river systems reduces shallow aquifer levels that in turn reduce river flows. (See Environmental Flows.) Another concern with domestic wells is water quality. Increased metering and monitoring are potential solutions, but they would also bring increased costs and regulation.

1NM Office of the State Engineer. Total Use of Surface and Groundwater by Category.

2NM Office of the State Engineer. SNM’s State Total Gross Domestic Product and Water Use.

3NM Office of State Engineer-Categories. (2010). Water Use by Categories. p. 35.

4NM Office of the State Engineer. (1995-2010) Amount and Percentage of Total NM Water Used by Agricultural Industries. As noted previously, this report is published every five years, beginning in 1995. Data through 2015 will likely be released in 2017.

5NM Office of the State Engineer. Amount and Percentage of Total NM Water Used by Agricultural Industries.

6Albuquerque Journal. (2013, December). State making new plan for water.   

7NM Office of the State Engineer. Populations in New Mexico River Basins.          

8The amount of irrigated acreage is 872,664 acres. NM Office of the State Engineer. (2010) Irrigated acreage.

9NM Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Number of farms, young farmers, minority farmers rising in New Mexico.

10Crawford, T., Diemer, J., & Patrick, M. (2014). New Mexico Agriculture and Food Processing. New Mexico State University. (These figures are based on direct, indirect, and induced agricultural income. The U.S. Department of Commerce calculates the agricultural sector of the NM economy at just under $1.5 million, but it only counts cash receipts.)

11Crawford, T., Diemer, J., & Patrick, M. (2014). New Mexico Agriculture and Food Processing. New Mexico State University.

12NM Interstate Stream Commission-Review. (2013). Working Toward Solutions: Integrating Our Water and Our Economy.

13NM Interstate Stream Commission-Review. (2013). Working Toward Solutions: Integrating Our Water and Our Economy.

14Fernald, A., Baker, T., & Guldan, S. (2006). Hydrologic, Riparian, and Agroecosystem Functions and Traditional Acequia Irrigation Systems. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 147-171.

15Fernald, S. (2013). Irrigation Efficiency. NM Water Resources Research Institute, NMSU.

16Quay County Sun. (2013, July). Project leaders: Ute lake intake structure could be completed by July.

17NM Office of the State Engineer. Amount and Total Percentage of NM Water Used by Public Water Supply

18American Society of Civil Engineers. (2012). 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

19NM Interstate Stream Commission-Review. (2013). Working Toward Solutions: Integrating Our Water and Our Economy.

20NM Office of the State Engineer. (2010) Water Loss Audits-2009.

21NM Office of the State Engineer. (2010) Water Loss Audits-2009.

22Thomson, B. (2012). Water Resources in New Mexico. In D. G. Brookshire, Water Policy in New Mexico (pp. 25-55). New York: Resources for the Future Press.

23Stomp, J. (2014, March). Albuquerque Water Utility Authority. (H. Balas, Interviewer)

24American Groundwater Trust. (n.d.). Ground Water and Water Wells.

25Stomp, J. (2014, March). Albuquerque Water Utility Authority. (H. Balas, Interviewer)

26NM Office of State Engineer-Categories. (2010). Water Use by Categories.

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