Water wars:
There should be no winners, no losers in this vital struggle

With this year declared the Year of Water in New Mexico by Gov. Bill Richardson, we'll hear a lot about senior and junior water rights and buying up agricultural water rights to sustain urban growth.

We might even hear land developers and urban leaders talk dismissively about New Mexico's water laws, which are designed, in part, to protect traditional water users. Urban developers tend to think such laws stand in the way of progress.

The New Mexico Acequia Association, all American Indian tribes and most farmers and ranchers in the state, however, beg to differ. They hold senior water rights.

Article XVI of the New Mexico Constitution codifies state water laws and protects senior users against all others. To change it would require a constitutional amendment and something close to a revolution.

In a water-poor state, in a water-poor region of the country, water disputes are common, volatile and protracted.

New Mexicans always seem to be involved in court battles over water with other states, such as Texas, governed by interstate compacts, which try to govern local practices. While senior agricultural users have the constitutional rule of priority appropriation to give them a legal advantage in local disputes, money and lobbying clout give almost equal advantage to junior urban users.

And increasingly, local disputes in New Mexico are between those who see water as their life-blood - "El aqua es la vida," as the Acequia Association says - and those who see water as a commodity with which to make money.

Everyone, of course, needs water to live. And the history of water law here has moved in the direction of win/win solutions. To lose a water war can mean, quite literally, that you or your community dies. Negotiation has been the rule, no matter how long it took.

Last year, three decades-long water disputes between American Indians, acequias and other water-rights holders - in the Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque Basin, the Taos area and the Navajo Reservation along the San Juan River - were settled, with all sides agreeing to share scarcity. This is the model for the future.

Senior-water-rights users such as the New Mexico Acequia Association, however, are keenly aware that junior urban users try to buy agricultural water rights at every opportunity, skirting the customs of win/win negotiations and using money to trump community.

As the Year of Water unfolds in New Mexico, with growing competition for our drought-stricken water supplies and shrinking aquifers keener than ever, the struggle between rural agricultural economies and ways of life and urban economies and populations will become ever-more apparent.

But the same historical rule of negotiating shared scarcity will apply.

There can be no winners and losers in struggles over water in New Mexico. In the long run, communitarian values must prevail. We're all in this together.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
January 13, 2007