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Sunday, July 16, 2000

N.M. Pueblos Own Senior Rights To Water

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Indian water rights are the wild card in water planning along the Rio Grande. Because Native Americans have lived along the river and used water from it for centuries, they have senior rights to much of the water in the Rio Grande.
    "The tribes have substantial rights claims," said Tim Vollmann, regional solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior in Albuquerque.
    "What is most daunting about Indian water rights claims is not necessarily the size, although they are large. ... It's that the Indian claims have the senior rights for the most part, and that means they come first in case of a drought," Vollmann said.
    Eleven pueblos line the Rio Grande below Taos, from San Juan Pueblo in Rio Arriba County to Isleta in Valencia County.
    Irrigators with rights that are junior to those of the pueblos could be cut off in dry years. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District has an obligation to deliver water to almost 9,000 acres of tribal land that holds "prior and paramount" rights before it gives water to other users.
    Those older rights are superior to any other rights, said Les Ramirez, lawyer for Santa Ana Pueblo.
    Another issue is that water rights along the Rio Grande have not been legally sorted out in a court adjudication. That means no one knows exactly how much water each user is entitled to.
    Unlike other water rights, the Indian claims are for future use as well as historical use. Uses can include grazing, irrigation, domestic needs and religious ceremonies. Some experts say the pueblos are entitled to enough water to farm all their irrigable land.
    An adjudication on the main stem of the Rio Grande among Indians and less-senior users would "be expected to take a very long time and be very costly," Vollmann said.
    State Engineer Tom Turney said it also could be controversial.
    "There can be conflicts on Indian claims," he said. "Where will that water come from?"
    Indian water rights could be a big issue if the tribes want to put more of their water to use. But if they merely want to clarify their rights, and would be willing to lease water they don't use, the impact would be much smaller, said water resources consultant John Shoemaker.
    "Then you don't change how water is allocated physically, but you change who pays who for it," he said. "I think a lot of the Indian water rights issues ultimately will be resolved that way."
Sacred water
    For the pueblos, the river is more than the source of water rights.
    It is considered sacred and plays a central role in spiritual life.
    "Moving water and clean water are central to some of the fundamentals of our view of the world and our connection to our deities," said Ramirez. "We don't just drink it or use it for crops, we immerse ourselves in it and are immersed by it."
    Stephine Poston, a spokeswoman for Sandia Pueblo, said tribes generally don't talk about how they use the river in cultural ways.
    But she said, "The pueblo has extremely high regard for the river, the land, the resources. We view that the Rio Grande is a life-giver."
    Sandia also uses water from the river for irrigation and replenishing fishing lakes, Poston said.
    Santa Ana and Sandia both are working to restore sections of the bosque on their land.
    At Santa Ana, a 61/2-mile stretch of the Rio Grande is being cleared of invasive trees and plants and replanted with natives to create a better habitat for endangered species, Ramirez said.
    "It's partly about economic benefit and it's partly about culture," he said. "Our culture says those are creatures God gave to us to exist with in a family relationship."
    At Sandia, a separate 20-acre pilot project is replacing salt cedar, Chinese elm and Russian olive with cottonwoods.
    "We'd like to remove the non-natives and plant native species," said Environment Director Beth Janello. "We want to see native wildlife come back, too."
    The Coalition of Six Middle Rio Grande Basin Pueblos also is worried about water depletions "caused by the ever-increasing demand for, and use of, water to meet the rapid growth which has taken place in the basin over the past 50 years," Roy Montoya of Santa Ana told a group meeting on water issues recently.
    The state and its subdivisions have ignored pueblo water rights in granting new water use permits and encouraging growth, Montoya said.
    "This century has seen water replace land as the Indian asset most craved by non-Indians," Montoya said.