The Navajo Nation currently consumes 6 percent of the surface water in the state of New Mexico, according to an analysis by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. The agency also says a water rights agreement among the state, federal and Navajo Nation governments would give the Navajo Nation an additional 4 percent.
This is smaller than the number frequently cited by Albuquerque attorney Victor Marshall, the agreement’s leading opponent, who has claimed in court filings and fact sheets provided to legislators that the deal gives the Navajo Nation approximately one third of the surface water in New Mexico.
Asked for the data behind that claim, Marshall acknowledged uncertainty about the numbers. “I have said all along I’m not sure exactly what those numbers are,” Marshall told members of the Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 31.
A Journal analysis of publicly available data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission supports the state’s claim that the Navajo Nation’s water use is approximately 6 percent of the state’s surface water, rising to 10 percent under the terms of the water settlement agreement. Even so, Marshall believes the settlement is a bad deal for the rest of the state.
Marshall also argues that the settlement is inappropriate because the total amount of water allocated to the Navajo Nation is roughly six times the amount of water used by the city of Albuquerque.
The agreement’s defenders call that an apples-to-oranges comparison, because all of New Mexico’s agricultural water agencies use substantially more water for irrigation than is used by cities.
The deal’s defenders also say comparison to the Rio Grande’s two largest irrigation districts provides a more appropriate context for considering the size of the agreement. The Navajo Nation currently uses less than those irrigation districts. If the agreement is approved, its agricultural water rights consumption would be about half again as large as those irrigation districts.
For accounting purposes, water consumption is defined under New Mexico law as the total amount of water pumped from the ground or diverted from the state’s rivers, minus the amount of water returned for use by others downstream, either through agricultural return flows or sewage treatment plant outfalls.
♦ Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District – Cochiti to Socorro County: 200,000 acre feet per year
♦ Elephant Butte Irrigation District, Doña Ana County: 200,000 acre feet per year
♦ Current Navajo Nation consumption: 195,400 acre feet per year
♦ Navajo Nation consumption under 2005 settlement agreement: 299,250 acre feet per year of agricultural water
The agreement also gives the Navajo Nation water rights to consume 26,506 acre feet of water for municipal, industrial and other non-agricultural uses on the reservation. By comparison, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority consumes approximately 46,000 acre feet of water per year.
That increase from 195,400 acre feet per year to 325,756 acre feet per year increases the Navajo Nation’s share of the state’s water from 6 to 10 percent.
— This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal