New Mexico is a land-locked state. Our water comes from precipitation (some of it hundreds of years old held in aquifers) or from river water that flows down from Colorado. Of the water received each year, an estimated 97 percent evaporates or is transpired by plants.1 We actively use the remaining three percent to meet human, economic, legal, environmental and groundwater recharge needs.
To meet those needs, New Mexico uses about 3.4 trillion gallons of water a day.2 Reflecting a pattern common in the United States, water use peaked in the state in 1980 and has declined since.3 We have a modestly growing economy, but as the following chart illustrates, that growth has not prevented an overall reduction in water use.
Agriculture is the state's dominant water user, diverting an estimated 80 percent of the water withdrawn from the state’s rivers and aquifers.5 Some of that water returns to aquifers or streams and is reused by other farmers or municipalities. For the last half century, New Mexico water use was roughly evenly split between groundwater and surface water. The following chart illustrates that the amount of water use by the industry declined slightly, while the percent of total water use increased.
New Mexico municipal or public water use peaked in the mid-1990s at 350,000 acre-feet per year. Since then, total municipal water use in the state has declined, even as urban populations continued to rise. New Mexicans’ per capita water use in the 1990s averaged 225 gallons per person per day. By 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, that had dropped to 161 gallons per person per day.7 In particular, the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe have seen signficant water use decline.
Most small businesses in New Mexico obtain their water from local utilities, just like homeowners. Some large industries, however, access their own water through privately held water rights. This type of water user is called "self-supplied" and may include restaurants, hotels, manufacturing plants, highway construction, oil and gas extraction, and other mining. Water use by this group of businesses has remained about the same in recent decades.
The quality of our lives is directly linked to the quality of our water. Water is easy to pollute but difficult to clean up. If water becomes contaminated, there are negative impacts for households, businesses and the environment. New Mexico's Water Quality Standards designate uses for rivers, streams, lakes and other surface waters and establish benchmarks to protect those uses. Indicators of water quality impairment may include turbidity, high temperature, low dissolved oxygen, and the presence of nutrients, metals, e-coli, organics, or radionuclides above established standards.10 The charts below illustrate that more than half of the state’s streams and lakes were impaired in 2014; this level of impairment is somewhat worse than in 2010, which is the previous year for which data is available. In 2010, 49 percent of stream miles were impaired, along with 64 percent of lakes and reservoirs.11
Dams are critical structures that provide flood protection, domestic and irrigation water supply stability, hydropower, and recreation opportunities. Many dams in New Mexico are old and in need of maintenance and repair. The NM Office of the State Engineer’s Dam Safety Bureau inspects dams and reviews plans for repairs. The bureau regulates 300 dams, not including those managed by federal or tribal governments. Of the state-regulated dams, 152 are considered “high hazard potential dams,” meaning that failure of the dam could result in a loss of human life.14 The following chart illustrates the safety conditions of this specific classification of dam.
When large fires burn out of control, they affect water quality for downstream users. For example, rivers and streams flowed with ash and charcoal for months after the 2011 Los Conchas Fire. This contamination affected fish, plants, wildlife and, of course, humans. It was very costly for downstream water utilities to prevent the fire debris from reaching public water supplies.
A strategy to address this issue is forest and watershed restoration, particularly when restoration involves thinning over-dense forests so they do not fed large, catastrophic fires. Presently no statewide metric exists that captures the total acreage of New Mexico forests that require thinning, the variety and efficacy of treatments, and the state’s overall progress toward the goal. Stakeholders agree such a metric is needed; once developed it will be published in this report.
During a typical year, almost half of New Mexico’s water comes from underground aquifers.17 That’s about 1.7 million acre-feet of groundwater a year, pumped from the five major freshwater aquifers underlying New Mexico.18 During drought years, to make up for surface water shortfalls, even more groundwater may be pumped from aquifers. Our knowledge of these deep geological formations varies considerably. Understanding the nature and volume of these aquifers—including whether they are depleting, holding steady or rising—is an important activity for our state. This data can inform population, economic and environmental planning.
The following table and map illustrate New Mexico’s major aquifers and a score estimating the degree to which researchers have characterized each one—including water level, freshwater quality, and connection to surface water recharge. The level of available data on these aquifers has increased in recent years, but additional data is definitely needed for long-range water supply planning.
The table's characterization scores are based on the following variables:
|NM Aquifer or Aquifer System||
|Colorado Plateau Aquifers||C|
|High Plains Aquifer (including the Ogallala Formation)||
|Pecos River Basin||B|
|Rio Grande Aquifer System||B|
|Roswell Basin Aquifer System||B|
New Mexico receives about 13.5 inches of rain a year, and less during periods of extreme droughts. Several rural communities face serious questions about their water supply, and researchers predict worsening water scarcities for the state in the coming years. Some drought-affected areas in the U.S., including southern Texas, supplement their freshwater supply by pumping and purifying brackish water.
Brackish water is too salty for human consumption, but large volumes of it exist in New Mexico in deep underground basins. Basins are geological formations that hold groundwater or surface water; the freshwater aquifers mapped above contain multiple basins. The map below illustrates approximate locations of brackish water basins of interest. The volume, salinity and accessibility of those basins is largely unknown. Any existing data comes from a diverse range of historic reports, not a single source that would give an adequate estimation of brackish water in the state.20 In addition, the potential economic and environmental impacts of extracting and using water from those aquifers also requires additional research. Before New Mexico can seriously consider diversifying its water supply with brackish water, it must better understand these variables.
Currently, no metric exists in NM for characterizing brackish water basins, but researchers agree it must be developed.21 Once the metric is available, it will be published in this report.
Water rights provide the legal authority to use a specific amount of water at a specific location. However, owning a right to the water does not guarantee the water will actually be available. Droughts, floods or diminished water tables occur without regard to human laws. When water is scarce, it legally goes first to holders of the most “senior” water rights (those whose legal claim is the oldest). “Junior” water rights holders have to wait their turn, and there may not be enough to go around. This system, called “prior appropriation,” exists on the assumption that the amount and seniority of the water rights are legally clear.
Unfortunately, that clarity does not exist for many water rights holders. Over 72,000 defendants await settlement of their water rights in New Mexico. The adjudication process has seen progress in recent years, with about two-thirds of the involved acreage settled (almost 300,000 acres). However, it remains a slow undertaking, involving land owners in multiple counties plus 18 tribes or pueblos.23
|Region||Total Acres||Adjudicated Acres||Percent of Acres Adjudicated||Number of Defendants|
|Northern NM Adjudications||
Southern NM Adjudications
A major demand on New Mexico’s water supplies is the obligation to deliver water to other states under interstate compacts. (Interstate compacts are legal agreements between states on how to share natural resources within specific river systems.) While these deliveries are most often seen as an encumbrance on New Mexico water users, the compacts provide certainty about how much water we can use. Meeting delivery requirements requires active, vigilant management. Compact deliveries are also impacted by precipitation, the physical condition of the rivers, and the draw-down of groundwater basins connected to these rivers.
There are eight interstate water compacts affecting New Mexico, but the two with the greatest impact on the most citizens are the Rio Grande and Pecos. The following table illustrates the credit—or over-delivery amount—from the last six years. The annual over-delivery target for the Pecos is 100,000 acre-feet; the target for the Rio Grande is zero or more.
|Pecos River Compact delivery credit, to the state-line, at the end of calendar year.||100.1K||99.6K||100.1K||102K||95.7K||97.6k|
|Rio Grande River Compact delivery credit, to Elephant Butte Lake, at end of calendar year.||116K||180.5K||164.5k||44.6K||62.4K||0|
It should be noted that Texas alleges New Mexico fails to deliver enough water across the state border, 105 miles south of Elephant Butte. In 2013, Texas filed a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit on the matter; the case is expected to remain pending for several years.
A range of water policy reforms have been undertaken in past year, some of which follow.
|2015||The state approved new rules on reusing produced water from oil and gas extraction. The Forest and Watershed Restoration Act passed legislature; not approved by the executive branch.|
|2014||Law passed clarifying pueblos’ ability to lease adjudicated water rights.|
|2013||Legislature broadened the authorized uses of the Water Conservation Fund and required rulemaking for determining which contaminants would be tested and paid for by the fund. State law was also amended to require developers of land, on which irrigation water rights have been severed, to prove adequate water supplies before approval of the subdivision.|
|2009||Senate memorial called for research and public input on water rights adjudications; multiple public hearings were conducted but without consensus on expediting the process.|
|2008||Legislature expanded the ways the NM Interstate Stream Commission can acquire water rights to fulfill interstate water compacts.|
|2007||State law was amended to encourage agricultural water conservation by ensuring that conservation would not affect the value or quantity of the owner’s water rights. Separate legislation amended state law to allow the Interstate Stream Commission to use Strategic Water Reserve funding for infrastructure related to the reserve. The legislature also expanded the zoning authority for counties and municipalities to preserve or protect their water supply. State law limited the State Engineer’s authority to appoint a water master only in the case of a request by a voting majority of water users in a district. (Water masters appropriate, regulate and control waters in a district to prevent waste.)|
|2006||State law extended eligibility to school districts for a 40-year water planning period, supporting schools’ abilities to acquire future water rights. (The ability was already afforded to municipalities and counties.) Aamodt and Taos water rights settlements signed.|
|2005||The Strategic Water Reserve was established and provided for the purchase, lease or donation of surface water or water rights to help the state fulfill interstate water compacts and address streamflow needs of threatened or endangered species. The Indian Water Rights Settlement Fund was created. And the Navajo Nation water rights settlement signed.|
|2004||Arizona Water Settlement Agreement signed by the President, prompting a decade of water supply deliberations in southwestern New Mexico regarding the Gila River.|
|2003||The State Water Plan Act called for the establishment of a state plan and the integration of the 16 regional plans. Prior administration legislation was enacted, making explicit the State Engineer’s authority to administer water rights based on priority dates of permit applications. The bill laid the foundation for the Active Water Resources Management (AWRM) program. This program led to a nine-year legal battle, settled in 2012 by the N.M. Supreme Court, declaring AWRM constitutional.|
|2001||The Water Trust Board was established to administer selected water funds and recommend projects for financing.|
|1999||Utton Transboundary Resources Center established.|
10State of New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission. (2014). State of New Mexico Clean Water Act Integrated Report .
16 Balice, R., Bennett, K., & Wright, M.. (2004). Burn Severities, Fire Intensities and Impacts to Major Vegetation Types from the Cerro Grande Fire.
18Based on 2010 total groundwater use of 46 percent.
21S. Fernald, personal communication, October 1, 2015
24NM Legislative Finance Committee. (2015). Overview of FY15 Performance Report Cards and FY17 Performance Measures.
26NM Legislative Finance Committee