Twenty-three different tribes exist within New Mexico, with a majority of the Pueblo tribes having lived within the Rio Grande basin. The original peoples of New Mexico—Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache—since time immemorial, have had deep connections to the land and have made significant contributions to the broader community statewide. These communities have senior water rights, preserved through the federal government as sovereign nations.

The Camino Real was first established in 1598 with the arrival of 500 Spanish immigrants who traveled up the Rio Grande from Mexico to found a colony for Spain. In the seventeenth century, the king of Spain granted lands that are still in existence to these and other people. In this document, I also recognize the history of those peoples on this land, that Elephant Butte is a product of a federal government, and that the land is irreparably changed.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley within New Mexico was historically served by acequias. This system of laterals and drains was a physical infrastructure, but also a social and political one. Acequias, the Spanish term for ditches, represent a culture and traditions inextricable from the land.  They were maintained and governed by the community itself. Although the Elephant Butte Irrigation District does not operate like a traditional acequia community, the principle of dividing up water for everyone is maintained.

The Rio Grande Project of 1905 (RGP) came as a response to the river drying up due to heavy upstream use by Colorado and Northern New Mexican farmers. The eventual construction of Elephant Butte occurred after the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 created the Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation) to manage irrigation, water transfers, and hydroelectricity.

The farms that fall within the Rio Grande Project area constitute approximately 60 percent of all the irrigated land in New Mexico, delineated by the thick black line, with most of this land directly adjacent to the Rio Grande. The dark green zone shows this narrow area of irrigated farmland that hugs the river, and the pink areas show the land that is owned by the federal government. There is almost no riparian zone. The RGP consists of two large storage dams, six small diversion dams, two flood-control dams, 596 miles (959 km) of canals and their branches, and 465 miles (748 km) of drainage channels and pipes.

Elephant Butte Dam and Leasburg Dam were the first pieces of the Rio Grande Project. Following their construction, 465 miles of drainage ditches were built to prevent waterlogging on the farms. Lastly, Caballo Reservoir was built to help store the water after it was used at Elephant Butte to produce hydroelectricity. The Rio Grande Project divides up waters between Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico according to the number of irrigated acres being farmed.

The Rio Grande Compact of 1938 (the Compact) is the agreement between New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas to apportion the waters of the Rio Grande in an equitable manner. Its main provisions are to create a commission to oversee water-sharing operations; to use gauging stations (one at Otowi Gauge to measure delivery from Colorado, and one at San Marcial/Elephant Butte to measure delivery to Texas); to develop an accounting system for debits and credits of water; and to release the 790,000 AFY of water for the RGP.

There was no provision for dividing waters between Elephant Butte and the state line, as that was determined by the RGP. Allotments of water under both the Compact and the RGP are dependent on complex engineering models that were last modified in 2008, when an operating agreement was signed at the beginning of the lawsuits that still affect operations within the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) and El Paso (Irrigation) District No. 1. Additionally, it is important to note that EBID is in New Mexico for groundwater, but part of “Compact Texas” for the Compact.

The Rio Grande Compact area presently has three major lawsuits, each aggravated by drought. These lawsuits highlight the difficulty of managing such massive water infrastructure. They cover water storage, water distribution, and water values.


2011: New Mexico vs. United States. In 2011, Texas faced drought conditions and the Bureau of Reclamation sent Colorado and New Mexico’s credit water down to Texas during the heat of summer, replacing it in the fall. However, neither New Mexico nor Colorado received credit for that water, meaning that the states were unable to store other waters in northern reservoirs, depriving them of an important cache. The case is ongoing. Article VII of the Compact notes that no storage is allowed in any reservoir upstream of Elephant Butte built after 1929 when the usable project water in Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs falls below 400,000 acre-feet, unless the relinquishment of credit waters in Elephant Butte occurs. This case demonstrates the difficulty of when the situation is reversed.

2013: The Lower Rio Grande Adjudication is ongoing work to determine and describe the water rights in the area of New Mexico between Elephant Butte Dam and the state line. Texas filed suit against New Mexico for Compact violations related to groundwater pumping. Texas said New Mexico is required to regulate groundwater withdrawals south of Elephant Butte. New Mexico countered that the water is measured at the dam and is no longer the responsibility of the state to manage after that: the Compact Texas problem. Farmers receive both deliveries under the 1938 Compact and may continue to pump groundwater; so, in a sense, they are double dipping. This case is ongoing. As recently as 2018, the Supreme Court was involved in determining whether the federal government was party to the lawsuit.

2013: The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers were sued over the habitat security of silvery minnow and the willow flycatcher populations along the Rio Grande under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. This lawsuit can force the Bureau and the Corps to maintain water within the channel of the river for habitat and a functional ecosystem, affecting water deliveries. Critical habitat for endangered species has long been a difficult battle for environmental groups as the water volume requirements to maintain habitat exist in stark contrast to irrigation needs. Often, the Rio Grande can be crossed on foot during the summer in Albuquerque, but filled to its top banks below Elephant Butte.


Listed here are the bureaus, offices, commissions and associations that lay claim to jurisdiction on the Rio Grande within the Rio Grande Project area. The major landowner within the federally owned lands is the Bureau of Land Management, which leases most of the land for varied uses like ranching and mining.

Interstate / International:

  • Rio Grande Compact Commission (Rio Grande Compact)
  • International Boundary and Water Commission
  • New Mexico–Texas Water Commission
  • New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission
  • Border Environment Cooperation Commission
  • North American Development Bank
  • United States–Mexico Border Field Coordinating Committee

National / Regional:

  • US Bureau of Reclamation (managing agency)
  • US Geological Survey
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • US Environmental Protection Agency
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • US Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • US National Park Service
  • US Bureau of Land Management
  • US Department of Energy
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Department of Agriculture
  • Interstate Stream Commission Water Trust Board
  • Good Neighbor Environmental Board
  • Paso del Norte Water Task Force


  • Office of the State Engineer and the Environment Department, Ground Water Quality Bureau
  • Environment Department, Water Quality Control Commission
  • Resource Geographic Information System Program
  • Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Oil Conservation Division
  • Institute of Mining and Technology, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources
  • New Mexico State University, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
  • Water Resources Research Institute
  • Rural Water Association
  • Drought Task Force
  • Acequia Commission


  • South Central Council of Governments
  • Sierra County
  • Doña Ana County
  • Elephant Butte Irrigation District
  • Artesian conservancy districts
  • Regional water planning areas
  • Soil and water conservation districts
  • Acequia associations
  • Water user associations


This article is part of “Water Scarcity: Elephant Butte Reservoir,” written solely by Kathleen Kambic, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. All images are her work alone, unless noted otherwise in the text.

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The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.