Introduction to Water Rights


New Mexico Acequia Association Fact Sheet

Every water right in New Mexico carries with it the right to use water from a specific water
source to be used at a specific location and for a specific purpose of use. A water right for irrigation
purposes is associated with a designated tract of land. When someone sells his or her land, the sale
automatically includes any water rights unless the seller specifically states in the deed that he or she is
retaining ownership of the water right. As long as the tract of land continues to be irrigated, without
any long periods of non-use, the water right will remain valid.
Most irrigation water rights in New Mexico became established simply by historic irrigation of
the land and continuous use to the present. Surface water rights originating prior to 1907 do not need
any kind of permit or paperwork to be considered valid today, as long there is continued use. The land
does not need to be plowed or planted with crops to have a water right; for example, land that is
irrigated only for pasture or for a lawn can have a valid water right. The only requirements are a manmade
diversion from a stream and beneficial use associated with the irrigation. People who wanted
to obtain a new surface water right after 1907 had to get a permit from the State Engineer, and could
only get one by proving that there was surplus water in the particular stream system.
A “water right” differs from a “ditch right”. A water right has to do with the state’s rules and
laws governing who can take water from a stream. A ditch right usually refers to the specific rules a
particular ditch has about being in good standing with the acequia. A person can temporarily lose
ditch rights, for example, by failing to pay dues, but can re-establish them by paying the back dues.
None of this affects the validity of the water right under state law. But if a water right is lost according
to state law, it is permanently lost. The state can only take away an established water right if the
requirements of forfeiture or abandonment are met (see “Forfeiture and Abandonment”). Usually it is
a court that determines whether someone has lost his or her water right. The Office of the State
Engineer (OSE) often has an opinion about whether a water right has been lost under state law, but if
there is any disagreement about the OSE’s opinion, it must be resolved by a court. Likewise, an
acequia cannot decide whether a water right is lost under state law. Only the courts can make this
Every water right is legally defined by a number of elements:
· Source of water (i.e., which stream)
· Place of use (i.e., which tract of land and how many acres)
· Purpose of use
· Point of diversion
· Priority date (i.e., date water was first put to use on the land)
· Amount of water (limit on the volume of water that can be used per acre)content goes here

The complete New Mexico Acequia Governance Handbook can be read by clicking here.