Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The beginning of the end of one of the longest-running water rights cases is underway. But the end is still at least eight years away and some loose ends still need to be tied, including securing funding to complete a $400 million-plus project and an unsettled dispute over access to roads on pueblo land.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation contractors have begun work on the first phase of what will become the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System serving approximately 3,900 homes, and 9,921 tribal members and non-tribal residents from San Ildefonso Pueblo to Santa Fe. It is the crucial piece in the decades-old Aamodt water rights case, which quantifies water rights for San Ildefonso, Nambé, Pojoaque and Tesuque pueblos, and sets out rules for non-Indian well-users to either tie into the system or rely on their own wells. Area residents use the water not only for drinking, but also to irrigate crops and gardens.
“This project is incredibly important for all the different communities that will receive water from this system,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, who visited San Ildefonso Pueblo last week to tour construction sites.
Burman understands the project from different perspectives. Not only does she head the federal agency in charge of building the water system, but also she’s a University of Arizona law school graduate, so she understands the complexities of Aamodt case, a lawsuit brought by the New Mexico State Engineer against all who claimed water rights in the Pojoaque Basin. While parties reached an initial settlement agreement in 2006 and an amended agreement in 2012, the U.S. District Court of New Mexico didn’t issue a final decree until 2017.
But there are still unresolved issues, such as where the funding will come from. A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico to provide an additional $137 million in federal funding – bringing the federal share of costs to more than $243 million – was approved and is awaiting action in the U.S. House.
The state of New Mexico is contributing about $100 million. Santa Fe County says it expects to contribute about $16.1 million to the project, though that figure depends on the construction schedule and an indexing factor.
The county’s funding comes from proceeds derived from the sale of water rights and gross receipts taxes earmarked for the project.
The work being done now is part of a “limited construction” phase that provides $12.5 million through the end of 2021 for the initial work on San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Currently, about $210 million – only about half the overall cost – has been authorized for the project, Burman said. But she’s confident the rest of the funding will go through.
“We’ve been very lucky because this administration is one that cares about Western water. That’s why I’m here,” said Burman, who served as the bureau’s deputy commissioner, and deputy assistant secretary for water and science in the George W. Bush administration. “Even though we’re in the process of getting the final funding, we’re absolutely committed to finishing this project.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the water system is to be completed by 2028. The first phase, which began in June, involves building transmission lines, a water treatment plant, a mechanical/electrical building, water storage tanks and several collector wells that will draw water from beneath the Rio Grande, almost all of it on San Ildefonso Pueblo.
“About 70% to 80% of the infrastructure for the entire project will be here – the collector wells, the electric building and the treatment facility up in El Rancho,” said pueblo Gov. Perry Martinez, who joined Burman on the tour, along with the governors of Nambé and Tesuque pueblos. “I think it’s the longest-running water case, and we hope this will satisfy it and provide water to tribal and non-tribal members in the area.”
The first phase will serve only people on San Ildefonso and the northern part of Pojoaque Pueblo.
Tom Kline, a supervisor with CDM-Smith, the contractor building the collector wells, said the wells currently under construction along the river are dug 35-40 feet deep and hold about 40,000 gallons of water. Then, four lateral lines will be drilled horizontally to make way for the 12-inch pipe that will run up to 170 feet under the river from which water will be drawn.
“Then it gets pumped four miles up the road to a central treatment plant and sent out for distribution,” he said, adding that a series of water storage tanks are also part of the initial part of the project.
Kline said the project is designed to have as little impact on the bosque and other work sites as possible.
“Because the land is sacred to the pueblo, we’re only working in certain corridors that are 36 feet wide,” he said.
Initially, the wells will be able to extract 2,500 acre-feet, or nearly 815 million gallons, of water per year. They will eventually be able to draw 4,000 acre-feet, more than 1.3 billion gallons, per year.
The water rights are a combination of Native water rights, water allocated from the San Juan-Chama Project, an interbasin transfer of water from Colorado and water rights secured from the Top of the World farm north of Taos.
The second phase, still in design, will serve the rest of Pojoaque, Nambé and Tesuque pueblos. It will also include transmission lines and storage tanks. The final phase, which is administered by Santa Fe County, will then connect the system to homes.
In all, the project involves about 150 miles of pipeline and seven miles of electrical lines.
Well-users had the option of connecting to the system or not, which carries some risk should their wells fail. Those who connect are required by the state to install a water meter at their homes, which costs around $400. They will also pay a monthly service charge, a portion of which is fixed, with the rest of it based on usage.
Santa Fe County sent out a survey to all well owners close to the water pipeline and found that 932 such owners were interested in having their connection costs paid for by filing an acceptance of the settlement agreement and a notice of well election in U.S. District Court.
“Those opting to connect to the County Water Utility as soon as service is available are eligible to have all connection costs paid for from the $4 million Pojoaque Valley Water Utility Connection Fund to be established by the State of New Mexico,” the county said in a statement. “Connection costs include the line from the distribution line to the customer’s home and any utility meter.”
The county says 184 well owners so far have elected to connect as soon as the system is up and running. Six more elected to do so after the transfer of property.
The county says that, based on notifications from the Office of the State Engineer, 159 well owners have elected to keep their well, but limit the amount of use in accordance with the settlement agreement.
The end of the road
There’s one more issue that remains a hang-up in the settlement agreement – roads.
In 2013, the president of the federal Bureau of Indian Affair’s Northern Pueblo Agency sent a letter to Santa Fe County alleging that the county was in trespass on roads on tribal land. The county responded with the argument that some of the roads have been in use for more than 100 years and pointed to a 1989 agreement that grants the county right-of-way on the roads in question.
The dispute clouded titles for homes and diminished property values for people living in the “exterior boundaries” – a legal term for lands that once belonged to the pueblo, but later passed into private hands – of San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Santa Fe County threatened to withhold its share of funding for the regional water system until the conflict was settled. That led to years of negotiations with all four pueblos over the rights-of-way and the matter is still not settled. Separate agreements have been reached with each pueblo, but require approval from the Department of the Interior.
“The County is working in good faith with the various Pueblos to implement the Road Settlement Agreements as soon as possible, and hopes to see some Right of Way applications submitted to the Department of Interior later this year,” the county said in a statement.