SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state’s process for issuing permits for domestic water wells is constitutional.
The court also acknowledged the legal tensions created by competing demands for water in drought-stricken New Mexico and the rest of the arid West. In its order, the court said citizens must look to legislators and the state engineer for relief when questions arise regarding the appropriation of water.
“We urge our Legislature to be diligent in the exercise of its constitutional authority over — and responsibility for — the appropriation process,” the ruling stated. “We equally urge the state engineer to fulfill its superintending responsibility by applying priority administration for the protection of senior water users.”
The ruling stems from a complaint filed seven years ago by Horace Bounds, a rancher in the Mimbres Basin who questioned whether the state’s domestic well statute violated the New Mexico Constitution and the due process of senior water rights holders.
Under the statute, the state engineer — New Mexico’s top water manager — is required to issue permits for new domestic wells regardless of the potential impacts on existing water rights. The state engineer has imposed limits on how much water can be pumped per year and per household.
A state district judge sided with Bounds, but that decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling. The high court said the constitutional doctrine of prior appropriation doesn’t dictate how senior water rights are to be protected from junior users in times of shortages.