Water Laws and the Pecos

Water needs to be managed and shared in ways that best reflect current usage needs. But such a common-sense approach is bone dry when it comes to the believe-it-or-not case of the Pecos River, which flows from New Mexico into Texas.

First, it's important to know that in much of the western US, precious water rights go first to those who have "priority in time" - meaning whoever accessed the water in the first place. Carlsbad, N.M., was settled in the 1880s, making it the primary keeper of Pecos River water.

But the water-use laws for the river also rely partly on the idea that the Pecos's flow is the same today as it was in 1947, i.e., Texas is supposed to get the same amount of water today that would have flowed over the state line in that year.

That hasn't happened, of course, with population growth. In 1948, Texas sued New Mexico in a 40-year-long case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1988, the Court ruled that New Mexico had stolen $14 million of water that should have gone to Texas. New Mexico is expected to miss its water target again this year, and is struggling to pay the costs.

Increasing the storage capacity of the river's water, along with plans to build more pipelines to carry water, will help. But old water compacts like the one setting rights to the Pecos are as parched as the rivers they once hoped to control.

Texas and New Mexico should sit down at the table together, and hammer out a more workable, balanced, and updated agreement.

They have an opportunity to help set an example for other states to create more regional approaches to water management. And that should help eliminate the seemingly endless quagmire surrounding water rights in the West, fraught with poor management and other inefficiencies.

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