Audubon Secures Important Water Right That Supports Birds and People

How in-stream flow benefits rivers and habitat in New Mexico.

New Mexicans finally have a tool for protecting water in rivers. As of today, the State Engineer approved Audubon New Mexico’s application In-Stream-Flow on the Rio Gallinas. This permit represents a historic step forward for New Mexican rivers and now allows private water right holders the option to lease or sell their water for environmental purposes. Audubon’s permit allows for a 5-year lease of an agricultural water right that will benefit the ecology of a tributary of the Chama River in northern New Mexico.

This is a big deal because many rivers in New Mexico are over-allocated—there are more water rights on paper than wet water in the rivers. Prior to this permit, water right holders did not have the option to use their water for the protection of stream flow.

More water in-stream means habitat protection for riverside birds such as the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Vermillion Flycatcher, and Western Tanager. Cottonwood-willow forests—bosques in New Mexico—and other native riparian habitat rely on flowing water and these support 40% of the bird species in America’s Southwest.

Water in the West is managed for both public and private benefit. Any individual or entity wanting to use water must have a legal right to do so—a “water right.” These water rights were obtained from the state over the last century in a priority system. Traditionally, water rights have been granted to irrigators, cities and industries.

In recent decades, western states have recognized leaving water in the river as a beneficial use, allowing conservationists and agencies to purchase or lease water for environmental protection. In-stream-flow water rights allow water right holders to leave their water in the river channel while still retaining its status as legally protected property. Through this permit, New Mexico has recognized in-stream flow as a beneficial use, establishing this important tool for improving ecologic and economic resiliency. In the next few months, a similar permit is anticipated to be issued to Trout Unlimited.

This water left in rivers provides necessary habitat for birds and other wildlife, and protects nearby aquifers and groundwater. It also means that, through the development of environmental water leasing programs, water rights holders will have options for conservation that will both protect their private property and can offer them financial compensation. In similar programs in other western states, this financial compensation has allowed irrigators to leave water in streams during times when they do not have the resources to farm, providing them solvency for more profitable years.

Working within legal and management frameworks that protect property rights, Audubon and other conservation NGOs look for innovative and collaborative approaches to work with water users to reallocate some of New Mexico’s appropriated water rights to rivers for the benefit of birds and other wildlife. In-stream-flow water rights are an important new tool in these efforts and this permit signifies much needed progress for the people and wildlife of New Mexico.