Middle Rio Grande pueblos seek to quantify water rights - Albuquerque Journal

Middle Rio Grande pueblos seek to quantify water rights

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANDIA PUEBLO – The six pueblos that share the Middle Rio Grande are in the earliest stages of a legal process that could quantify their water rights, tribal and state officials said Monday.

Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuart Paisano told state lawmakers at the Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting that “it’s time” to determine the specific amount of water that should be allocated to regional pueblos.

“It’s going to be a huge task,” he said.

Paisano chairs a water coalition of Cochiti, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta pueblos.

At least twice in the past decade, the coalition has requested that a federal team from the U.S. Interior Department assesses the feasibility of settling their claims to the river.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland approved that team earlier this year.

Josh Mann, a water lawyer and former Interior Department attorney, said the agency may be reluctant about a negotiated legal settlement.

The Middle Rio Grande Basin has not been adjudicated.

That means a court has yet to formally outline which entities have water rights in the region.

Adjudicated basins are governed by a court decree and all entities are legally bound to the water rights defined in that order.

“When you don’t have that process, you’ve got to come up with another way,” Mann said. “There is no precedent for this. This has never been done anywhere in the U.S.”

The water lawyer said the process will likely demand such creative solutions as federal and state legislation to balance tribal water rights negotiations in the face of diminishing water supply along the river.

Water rights settlements are time-consuming and expensive, said Kelly Brooks Smith, who leads a tribal water law bureau at the Office of the State Engineer.

Then comes the buildout of infrastructure projects that utilize those water rights.

“It’s not just projects, but it’s (also) how is everybody going to get along and how are we going to administer going forward,” she said.

Federal agencies and regional irrigation districts recognize that the pueblos have the oldest claims to river water rights. Each year, a certain amount of water is set aside for pueblo use.

Agencies must conserve that “prior and paramount” water, even if there is not enough for other irrigators or municipalities. But Paisano said the water rights are treated with a “use it or lose it” attitude.

Each December, water that the pueblos didn’t use is sent downstream to Elephant Butte Reservoir to help New Mexico comply with Rio Grande compact delivery obligations.

The Sandia governor said pueblos need “a seat at the table” and deserve compensation for helping New Mexico meet those deliveries.

“It is very crucial that we continue to work collectively … ensuring that the future of our water is protected and that we are treating water with the utmost respect,” Paisano said.

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