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NM Supreme Court Pushes for Better Water Rights Administration

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico residents remain free to drill domestic wells to meet household water needs, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday. But the state has an obligation to ensure that once wells are drilled, the resulting groundwater pumping doesn’t cut into the water rights of neighbors, the court found.

The ruling creates the possibility that for the first time New Mexico could be forced to curtail pumping from domestic wells if the well reduces water supplies to neighbors with senior water rights.

The decision provides new legal teeth to the argument that state government must begin enforcing the “doctrine of prior appropriation,” defending the rights of the state’s oldest water users, experts said Thursday.

“New Mexico has never done that,” said Reed Benson, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law. The decision, Benson said, “may mean that we are on the verge of a new era.”

New Mexico has a total of 201,473 legally permitted domestic wells, though a recent study suggests there likely are many more wells drilled illegally by homeowners that also are drawing water from the state’s aquifers. Last year, in the midst of severe drought, the state issued permits for 2,191 new domestic wells.

More in tomorrow’s newspaper. The full decision is here (pdf).


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