WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) welcomed the announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined a petition from Chama Troutstalkers, LLC and Z&T Cattle Co., LLC to review last year’s landmark ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court, which reaffirmed the public’s longstanding right under the New Mexico Constitution to access the streambeds of public waters that flow through privately owned lands for fishing or other recreation.
“Every New Mexican has a right to enjoy our public streams – it’s in our state constitution and it’s what I’ve spent years fighting for in our state courts. Last year, the New Mexico Supreme Court reaffirmed this right. Now the United States Supreme Court has effectively reaffirmed it, too, by ending the appeal brought by those who tried to privatize our waters for the benefit of wealthy landowners with out-of-state ties. Today we can say with confidence: New Mexico’s public waters remain public,” said Heinrich.
Heinrich continued, “It’s time for the ‘No Trespass’ signs and barbed-wire strung across public streams to come down. New Mexico’s streams will not be privatized. Our public lands will not be sold to the highest bidder. We have won this effort, and I won’t stop fighting to make sure our children and grandchildren inherit the public lands and waters that have defined the lives and experiences of so many in New Mexico for so long.”
The New Mexico Constitution expressly provides that rivers, streams, and lakes in New Mexico “belong to the public.” For more than 75 years, the New Mexico Supreme Court has recognized the public’s right to recreate, fish, and use these waters, including waters that flow through private lands.
However, in 2017, in the last days of former Governor Susana Martinez’s administration, the State Game Commission passed a rule allowing landowners to prohibit public access to waters flowing on their lands if the waters are “non-navigable.” Not only was that rule contrary to the state constitution. It impacted the vast majority of New Mexico’s streams which – whether they flow all the time, intermittently, or just in response to rain events – are not “navigable.”
In April 2020, Senator Heinrich and former U.S. Senator Tom Udall filed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief before the New Mexico Supreme Court to defend New Mexicans’ right under the state constitution to access public surface waters.
Last September, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued its final ruling in a case challenging that rule and upheld New Mexicans’ constitutional right to public stream access.