As drought conditions linger and in some cases intensify across the Southwest, one group of Rio Grande Valley famers in New Mexico has filed suit against the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy Water District for what they claim was an illegal cut in their water allocations during recent dry times.

The coalition of farmers, plaintiffs in the suit, are claiming the district has failed to protect senior water rights guaranteed by New Mexico’s state constitution on some of the Valley’s oldest farm land.

Former Conservancy board member and one of the plaintiffs who initiated the suit, Janet Jarratt, says senior water rights holders whose farming history dates back to before the days of New Mexico statehood have been cheated out of water during dry times for a number of years.

In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal last week, Jarratt said without water rights, the family’s Valencia County farm is worthless.

“The land is the water,” Jarratt told the press.

Plaintiffs say beginning in August, the District curtailed water deliveries equally between all members in spite of a constitutional requirement to recognize senior water right holders. Plaintiffs in the suit refer to that requirement as a violation of the “doctrine of prior appropriation” enshrined in the state constitution. They argue that senior water right holders are guaranteed water allotments even after restrictions in allotments are proposed by the district because the doctrine protects the water rights of its most senior members.

According to the suit, the doctrine creates an order for water use based on when farmland was first irrigated, beginning with pueblo farms, followed by early Spanish farmland settlements, and then with more recently developed farmland, the last to receive water priority.

The suit, filed in 2nd District Court in Bernalillo County in Sept., claims that water curtailment to senior water rights holders can only take place after complete curtailment of junior members, and that senior members should have received their full allotment until which time it was determined that the first curtailment measure had failed to accomplish conservancy efforts.

Blair Dunn, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, says the result is that farmers who should have been entitled to water because of their senior rights suffered economic losses to their crops. Dunn says this is the second year in a row in which farmers suffered early curtailment, and with little water left in carryover storage behind upstream dams, water managers are worried about the risk of a low supply again next year.

War over water

State and federal water officials have been warning for years that the war over water will intensify in the years ahead as demand grows and resources diminish, and this legal action represents only the most recent in a string of legal battles over water across the Southwest.

Earlier this year, Texas and New Mexico farmers and ranchers were disgruntled when the International Water Boundary Commission (IWBC) announced plans to release water from Elephant Butte Reservoir in Southern New Mexico in an effort to guarantee Mexican farmers their annual allotment of guaranteed water from the Rio Grande Valley River basin.

World leaders, diplomats and even scientists have been warning for years that the next Great War will be over water and not oil, a resounding sentiment echoing across the U.S./Mexico border after drought conditions in recent years have increased pressure on both nation’s to provide enough water for farmers on both sides of the international border to survive the dry times.