Groundwater in New Mexico is subject to prior appropriation, much like surface water in other southwestern states like Arizona.
Prior appropriation is, in layperson’s terms, “first in time, first in right.” It also means that water must be used, otherwise it is subject to abandonment or forfeiture.
The non-use of appropriable groundwater in the small town of Questa, New Mexico is the subject of a battle in the state, where Chevron Questa Mine closed around seven years ago. Founded in 1842, Questa is a village of about 1800 people half an hour north of Taos. The Chevron molybdenum mine was an important source of income to the village since 1918, before it closed in 2014.
As a gesture of goodwill, Chevron was willing to sell its appropriable groundwater at a heavily discounted price to help economic development in the community. Earlier this month, the State denied a transfer request associated with a sale to local businesses because the water rights in question were no longer valid. While the mine was using about 1,264 acre-feet for reclamation and remediation, the rest of Chevron’s water was deemed by the State to no longer exist due to non-use and thus not subject to sale or transfer.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that Chevron will appeal the State’s decision. Meanwhile, the village of Questa is desperate for water.
Eagle Rock Lake Questa, NM (EFreiboth, 2015, Wikimedia Commons)