The state of New Mexico consists of a total of 121,666 square miles in land area, with approximately 5,948 miles of perennial streams and an estimated 482,000 acres of wetlands.
The portion of the San Juan Basin that is located in New Mexico has an area of 9,744 square miles, with approximately 211 miles of perennial streams. The Basin encompasses the whole of the San Juan County, and portions of Rio Arriba, McKinley and Sandoval Counties. The Animas and La Plata Rivers are tributaries of the San Juan River, the largest tributary of the Colorado. The majority of water flowing in these rivers is the result of spring snowmelts from the San Juan Mountains located in southwest Colorado. New Mexico is considered an upper basin state of the Colorado River.
The San Juan, Animas and La Plata River valleys joining near Farmington, New Mexico, have attracted settlements for many centuries. Indian settlements were built on the banks of the rivers, their ancient irrigation canals visible in ruins today. In the 1500’s, Spanish conquerors settled throughout New Mexico, including San Juan County, bringing with them a system for legalizing water control. Acequias, community ditches, for irrigation were established, and whole communities participated in the maintenance and development of the acequia system.
In 1848, New Mexico became a territory of the United States, and the Territory Legislative, now the Office of the State Engineer, began establishing water law in New Mexico based on the Indian and Spanish practices. By the early 1900’s the Territorial Legislative had developed comprehensive water law regarding surface water in the area. After New Mexico gained statehood in 1912, the State Engineer continued to develop water law in the state, facilitating and administrating water rights as the state continued to grow and as the demands on water increased.
Water Law in New Mexico is based on the prior appropriation system, where he who is the first to divert and use the water for beneficial use is entitled to the right of that water. This first in time, first in right establishes senior and junior water rights. During times of drought the state engineer must ensure that senior rights are satisfied before junior rights can be honored.
Appropriated water rights are usually the result of an adjudication process. Through adjudication, legal action is taken to establish the water right that exists and to determine that the water is being used in the manner stated. Adjudication can also determine the amount of water used by a water right and historic water rights can be altered if the use of water for that right has changed. Currently, the State Engineer has determined that the San Juan, Animas and La Plata Rivers are fully appropriated and no additional water rights are being granted. A water right holder only owns the right to use the water, not the water itself. For that reason, the right can be severed from the land and transferred to another location.
The New Mexico San Juan Basin area is located on the Colorado Plateau, with most of the region being above 5,000 feet in elevation. On average, New Mexico receives about 12 inches of rainfall per year, with about 6 inches falling in the New Mexico San Juan Basin area. High elevations and high temperatures cause high levels of evaporation.
Long term stream flow records show that New Mexico receives an annual water supply of about 5.7 million acre-feet. Precipitation within the state accounts for about 3.3 million acre-feet; and about 2.4 million acre-feet are received through stream flows from other states, primarily from Colorado via the San Juan River and the Rio Grande. New Mexico depletes about 2.3 million acre-feet of surface water and discharges about 3.4 million acre-feet downstream states annually.
Although San Juan County comprises only 4.5 percent of the land area in New Mexico, more than 60 percent of the state’s surface water flows through it. However, this water flowing through New Mexico is impacted by a number of Interstate Water Compacts, Federal Reserved Water Rights, Indian Water Rights and Pueblo Water Rights.
In order to develop New Mexico’s 11.25 percent share of Colorado River water, under the 1948 Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, the Bureau of Reclamation constructed the Navajo Unit of the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP). Completed in 1962, it’s main feature, Navajo Dam, was constructed on the San Juan River with a 1,708,600 acre-foot capacity reservoir that extends into Colorado. Among its many purposes, Navajo Dam provides water to the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project to irrigate land on the Navajo reservation, the nation’s largest reservation. Upon completion, the project will irrigate 110,630 acres of alfalfa, corn, wheat, barley, potatoes, onions, pinto beans and pasture, benefiting some 170,000 members of the Navajo Nation.
Additional participating projects of CRSP include the San Juan-Chama Project, the Hammond Project and the Animas-La Plata Project.
The San Juan-Chama Project supplements the flow in the Rio Grande Basin, by diverting an average of 110,000 acre-feet of water annually from the upper tributaries of the San Juan River. Through a series of tunnels under the Continental Divide, water is provided to supplement irrigation in the Rio Grande Basin, and provided for municipal and industrial uses in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and the surrounding cities.
The Hammond Project diverts water directly from the San Juan River into canals that irrigate some 3,900 acres of alfalfa, wheat, barley and pasture land.
The Animas-La Plata Project in southwestern Colorado, currently under construction, will develop flows of the Animas and La Plata rivers. The project will provide storage of New Mexico water for municipal and industrial use for northwestern New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation.
Federal Water Rights are amounts of water reserved for use on areas of federally owned land. Water in these areas is used for fighting forest fires, maintaining wildlife in the area and growing new areas of forest.
New Mexico has numerous Indian reservations and water rights to these reservations are supplied as determined by the Winters Doctrine. As most reservations were established prior to settlement in the area, these water rights could be senior in nature thus effecting the water rights of other appropriators.
The San Juan, Animas and La Plata Rivers flow from Colorado through San Juan County, New Mexico, and serve an estimated population of 124,166 in the cities of Aztec, Bloomfield, Farmington and the unincorporated rural areas of San Juan County.
San Juan County is an important economic contributor to the state of New Mexico. The abundant natural resources such as oil and natural gas, coal mining and electric power generation have lead to the development of local and national companies that employ a large amount of the San Juan County population. The diversity of natural environments, the influence of the Indian and Hispanic cultures, and the emerging economic development combine to give New Mexico the recognition it enjoys today as the State of Enchantment.
In an effort to actively pursue New Mexico’s interest in the state’s share of Colorado River water, the Cities of Aztec, Bloomfield, Farmington, San Juan County and the Rural Water Users Association formed the San Juan Water Commission embarked by way of a Joint Powers Agreement. The Commission, formed in 1986, has continued to act in the interest of its members to ensure that there will be a stable and secure water supply in the years to come. The Commission oversees water permit purchases by its member entities and represents the area in its efforts to build the Animas-La Plata Project, ensuring among other things, the environmental integrity of the project, so the resulting project will be a safe and secure storage facility of water for use during years of drought.
The Colorado’s largest tributary (not longest) is the San Juan River, which travels a circuitous route through three states on its way from its headwaters in the rugged San Juan Mountains of southeastern Colorado near Wolf Creek Pass to the Colorado River, just above Lake Powel in Utah. With an annual discharge of some 2.5 million acre-feet, along with tributaries, which are many and wild, the San Juan River irrigates some 100,000 acres in northwestern New Mexico – about 10 percent of the state’s total irrigation. As was the case in so much of the West, many of the ditches today that carry water to the end user in San Juan County were built by Mormon settlers.
Alfalfa is the major crop in the region with some 35 percent of the acreage planted, pasture follows with 23 percent. Corn, small grains and dry beans account for 11 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent respectively. Add to the list sorghum, wheat, barley, cotton, peanuts, sugar beets, potatoes, lettuce, onions, chilies, hay, orchard crops and vineyards and you have a pretty complete picture of the agricultural output.
Navajo Lake is located in New Mexico and extends into Colorado. The lake’s huge expanse is a welcoming sight to the eye - a break from the surrounding dry environment. With 150 miles of shoreline, Navajo Lake offers outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to boat, water ski, fish, hunt and camp. All types of boats are allowed on the lake, and the two marinas in New Mexico offer general stores and services for those planning to be on the lake.
Downstream of the lake, past Navajo Dam, the San Juan River provides a haven for the fisherman and camper. The mild water temperatures and high mineral content in the river come together to provide world class fishing conditions for any fishing enthusiast. Rainbow, Brown and Snake River trout are among the most sought after catch. The area also provide a habitat for animals such as elk, barbary sheep and mule deer, and birds such as golden and bald eagles, hawks, geese, ducks and herons, making any camping trip an incredible outdoor experience.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
The area of Chaco Canyon is much like the rest of northwestern New Mexico. It is a remote, dry area, with steep cliffs defining the canyon. There is a sandy wash winding it’s way lazily through the canyon – created the steep cliffs for over thousands of years. The area is very rocky, with pinon pine perched among many of these rocks.
It is here, along the banks of the Chaco wash that the Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located. From about 850 to 1200 A.D. a large Indian city once thrived. Among the ruins are ceremonial buildings, evidence of multistory buildings, roads and dams that were once built and used by the Indians. The park is home to the largest number of kivas, ceremonial rooms, thus making Chaco Culture National Historical Park one of North America’s richest Indian cultural and historic areas.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park allows visitors to wonder among the Indian ruins and experience what life was like for the ancient Indians. It has a visitor’s center that exhibits many artifacts that have been found in the area. Maps and guides of the area are also available at the visitor’s center.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park also allows camping in designated areas, numerous trails for people wanting to hike into wilderness areas and bike riding along the roads within the park. But most of all, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a special, remote, isolated area, allowing visitors the chance to peacefully view the ruins left by Indians over a thousand years ago.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument is located on the outskirts of the City of Aztec, along the banks of the Animas River.
Aztec Ruins National Monument was built around 1100 A.D. and consists of a pueblo of about 500 rooms, including kivas buried in the ground. The Ruins also features the largest reconstructed kiva in North America. While the design of the pueblo may seem similar to other Indian ruins, different structural designs of the buildings suggest that Chacoan and later Mesa Verde people once lived in these ruins.
Aztec Ruins National Monument features a visitor’s center, museum and a self guided tour on trails throughout the park, allowing the public a chance to experience the ancient Indian culture.
Salmon Ruins and Heritage Park
Salmon Ruins and Heritage Park is located on the outskirts of Bloomfield, on the San Juan River. Similar to the Aztec Ruins National Monument, Salmon Ruins contains evidence of a Chacoan pueblo that once existed during the 11th century.
The ruins found at Salmon Ruins suggest that the building was once two stories high and excavations of the site have found numerous storage spaces within the building. The building also suggests that a plaza area existed, with a great kiva dominating the plaza site.
Salmon Ruins features a museum containing many artifacts found at the site. A self guided tour of the Ruins allows individuals the opportunity to learn about the ancient Indians while walking among the ruins.
The Heritage Park is an outdoor museum displaying the history of the San Juan Basin. It comprises of reconstructed dwellings of Indian and Spanish settlement displaying the cultural diversity that exists throughout the region. Featuring a self guided tour, visitors are allowed to enter the dwelling and experience various hands on activities within the Park.