ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF WATER WARS IN NEW MEXICO, 1912-2012
John W. Hernandez
This book is about water wars in New Mexico—particularly those water-related conflicts that have arisen in the hundred years since statehood. The history and legacy of such disputes has become part of what we celebrate in our centennial. For various reasons, conflicts over water have always been with us in New Mexico. Is the crux of the problem location, location, location? We are situated on a section of the earth that has a great climate, but it also does not get a whole lot of precipitation. New Mexico is an arid state with average rainfalls that may be enough to raise a crop above 7,500 feet, and far too little rainfall to grow much, except for a few places, below that elevation. Episodic periods of drought at all elevations causes demand to outstrip supply for years at a time. Efforts to create administrative rules to manage our limited supply have been successful sometimes, not so successful other times, and frequently controversial. That is why we scrap over what little water we have.
Water fights are an integral part of our lives, maybe more so for us than for other arid-lands people. In this book, we look at some pre-1912 skirmishes to provide insight as to why New Mexico has experienced so many water-use quarrels in the brief span of the one hundred years since statehood. Many of the disputes described in the book helped create some of the tools by which water is managed in most of the western states.
We will touch only on a handful of the many large and small disagreements over the right to use water that can be characterized as “water wars.” New Mexico has suffered fights with neighboring states, disagreements between Native American people and the Hispanic settlers, encounters between the state and the federal government, quarrels between upstream and downstream users, and mêlées among neighbors on the same watershed. We offer you at least one story related to each of these characteristic types of water wars.
One of the settings for water fights is in the adjudication process. Adjudications start in the courts and are like ‘quiet title property suits,’ except there may be thousands of water-rights holders involved, each trying to get a fair deal, and maybe more. In other cases, a water war occurs as a result of a confrontation over water rights that is of such magnitude that the courts are asked to intercede. This happens when a clash has occurred with such serious associated consequences that a resolution is unlikely to come about through negotiations, and resort to the courts is the only solution. Once a battle over water reaches the courts, there will likely be winners and losers. No one likes to be a loser. We will describe a few cases where friendly discussions, or in some instances, hostile dialogue, have produced an acceptable outcome where no one lost very much.
Water wars are typically very messy and complicated—full of legal precedents, revolving around interpretations of law that statute-framers never suspected or anticipated, and so complex that no simple narrative can provide all of the facts and ramifications. We have not asked authors to give both sides of a case—we hope that they will provide a somewhat balanced view of what happened, but we do not expect them to know or to give all the details that will please everyone involved.
In the chapters that follow, we offer fifteen short accounts of multifaceted, typically legal situations that should be of interest to all New Mexicans who love a story about a good fight. How did the disagreement get started? Why? When? Who were the players? What were the outcomes? How will, or did, these results change over time? And who were the winners and who were the losers? Without too much legalese, we hope that we have answered these questions in each of our fifteen accounts.