U.S. Water News Online
SANTA FE -- The Supreme Court has overturned a claim by the
city of Las Vegas, N.M., that it possesses special water rights
allowing it to take as much water as it needs for future growth.
The high court's decision sends the case back to the lower courts
for the city to work out a settlement with other area water users on
an equitable division of available water.
The state engineer's office applauded the decision, saying the
court did the right thing. City officials declined to immediately
comment pending a closer review of the court's 34-page decision.
The ruling overturns a 1958 high court decision adopting the
so-called pueblo rights doctrine, which says that communities founded
in Spanish colonial or Mexican times were deemed to possess special
rights giving them access to as much water from a river as necessary
for municipal uses.
The doctrine also allowed expansion of a town's right to
accommodate future population increases.
In a long-standing battle between Las Vegas-area acequia
organizations and the city over surface water use, then-State
Engineer Eluid Martinez had sought a declaration of the city's water
rights. Many of the associations claimed water rights senior to those
of the city. The city claimed the special rights under the pueblo
``The Supreme Court, in our opinion, ruled exactly correct,
considering the pueblo rights doctrine is invalid as a matter of New
Mexico's system ... that governs water use,'' said D.L. Sanders, the
office's chief attorney.
Justice Patricio Serna, who wrote the opinion, cited the appellate
judges' 1994 decision that the court would, if given the opportunity,
overrule prior cases establishing the pueblo rights doctrine. The
high court had not reaffirmed the policy since 1958, and it had been
``uniformly criticized by scholars,'' Serna wrote.
As for its basis in historical fact, the court conceded that, at
best, the doctrine rests on ``a very narrow foundation.'' However,
justices were not convinced that the 1958 decision ``represents an
entirely untenable view,'' Serna wrote.
Instead, the court based its rejection on the ``perpetually
expanding nature'' of the pueblo right.
The court said New Mexico water law is based on respect for prior
appropriations, as well as continuing beneficial use, promoting the
economical use of water and conservation. The pueblo doctrine stands
in contrast to those policies, allowing cities to take an increasing
amount of water over an indefinite period of time, the court found.
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.