Tribal Money

Pueblos begin legal proceedings to quantify their Rio Grande water rights

For the first time in 40 years, part of the middle Rio Grande that runs through Albuquerque went to scorching temperatures of over 100 degrees in late July. As the fifth longest river in the United States dried up and became a collection of puddles, it left an array of aquatic life, some endangered, stranded and struggling to find a place where to feel at home. He also signaled that greater water rationing for farmers is on the horizon again.

While southern portions of the Rio Grande often dry out, the 1/2 mile of drying out that began near the Rio Bravo Bridge was another wake-up call to the severity of the statewide drought. With reservoirs at a fraction of their capacity, it is clear that the river flow will no longer replenish them this year. At present, it is the rains – not the planned water discharges – that maintain the flow of the Rio Grande.

As puddles formed in the Rio Grande, a Six-Pueblo coalition began the legal process to quantify their water rights. The nature and amount of “Indian water rights” is a complex subject. Common law theories or doctrines relating to Indians continue to be judicially refined and evolve. The effect that the quantification of tribal water rights will have on non-indigenous water rights holders has not been fully explored. Pueblo and tribal water rights belong to the pueblo or tribe, rather than an individual member, and are assigned to that governing entity.

Rio Grande Pueblos and other native tribes have inherent sovereign authority over their water resources as granted by the US Congress. This means that the Pueblos hold the most water rights on the middle Rio Grande. Native Americans have the right to draw enough water to support their own self-sufficiency from the rivers that flow through their reservations. As a key group of stakeholders in water rights in dry or low-flow years, their right could be the largest proportion of the total surface water available for irrigation in the middle Rio Grande.

It can take a lot of time and a lot of money to qualify water rights regulations, and once completed, the development of infrastructure to use these water rights must be considered and funding for such projects must be considered. be found. Water use rights are handled according to the specific watershed and the adjudication within it. If located in New Mexico, Pueblos and tribes may have to assert their water rights in more than one adjudication area.

Pueblo and tribal water rights are determined and described under federal law and may be asserted as aboriginal and federal reserved water rights claims. Some Pueblos and tribes also claim storage rights and contractual water rights.

“It’s time,” said Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuart Paisano to state lawmakers at the Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting in July, which means it’s time to determine the specific amount of water that should be allocated to regional Pueblos. Paisano said the Pueblos needed “a seat at the table” and deserved compensation for helping New Mexico meet Rio Grande Compact deliveries. “It will be a huge task,” he said.

In May, the Six-Pueblo coalition seeking to quantify their water rights, also sought a formal relationship for Pueblos at the table of the Rio Grande Compact Commission which oversees how water from the Rio Grande is divided , managed and used interstate. In 1999, the Pueblos also demand to participate in operating contract discussions between the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Rio Grande Compact Commission was created in 1938 after years of lawsuits over the waters of the river between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. The Compact recognizes treaty obligations between the federal government, Mexico and the Indian tribes. Current commissioners at the Compact table include Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein, New Mexico State Engineer Mike Hamman and Texas Commissioner Bobby Skov. The US Bureau of Reclamation holds a non-voting seat and chairs the meeting.

While monsoon storms have raised water levels on the Rio Grande, it will be another short, dry year for irrigation and some farmers may not be able to plant winter crops. When deciding how much water from the river can be allocated to municipalities and crop irrigation, regional water bodies and management must consider that the superior water rights of the Pueblos and tribes are not subject to state law or governed by state administration.

Only the Pueblos have the right to receive surface water from the Rio Grande. New Mexico’s share of state water under the Rio Grande Compact depends on the flow of the river. By the end of 2021, New Mexico owed more than 41 billion gallons under the Rio Grande Compact, which limits the state’s ability to store or release water from reservoirs upstream.

Governor Vernon Abeita (Isleta), speaking on behalf of the coalition at the Omission meeting in May, said the Pueblos farmed and lived on their land “since time immemorial” and should be included in all correspondence and meetings of the Rio Grande Compact Commission that may have an impact on access to water from the Rio Grande. Pueblos want to be included in future commission meetings so they can interact directly with the commission rather than through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“In the past, the Bureau of Indian Affairs represented the Pueblos at commission meetings,” Albeita said. “Now is the time for the coalition to interact directly with the commission, and for the commission to engage the Pueblos coalition, so that our voices can be heard.”

“Our water resources are affected and threatened by the mega-drought and ongoing climate change, and the Texas vs. New Mexico Supreme Court litigation,” Abeita said.

Much of the Pueblo’s water is stored in the El Vado Reservoir; however, the Bureau of Reclamation has begun a two-year project to clean up the reservoir and plans to store water due to the Pueblos in the Abiquiu Reservoir for future irrigation seasons during the project. Pueblo’s water allocation is calculated monthly. Any water not used during an irrigation month returns to the general pool of the MRGCD Rio Grande on the first day of the following month.

Because Pueblo and Tribal rights to water are so ancient, they first receive their water based on the amount available. While Native American water rights prioritize non-Native American water rights, the quantification of many Native American water rights remains to be determined.

Some of the federal oversight rules that govern how their water is used on tribal lands have recently been deleted by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The US Department of the Interior relaxed rules now allow tribes to better control their water rights and establish a Federal Assessment Team to help the six Pueblos resolve water claims issues between the State of New Mexico and the Middle District Rio Grande Conservancy.

“If we are serious about supporting tribal self-determination, we cannot be afraid to review and correct past actions that were designed to create obstacles for tribal nations,” Secretary Haaland said of the legal change. . “Today’s action underscores our efforts to move forward in this new era.”