U.S. Water News Online
SANTA FE -- A 40-year-old lawsuit over water rights on the
Pojoaque, Nambe and Tesuque rivers is close to a settlement, but
questions remain over how much the federal government will pay for a
regional water system that is the agreement's cornerstone.
Representatives of the state, Santa Fe County, non-Indian well
owners and the pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque
are to sign a settlement in the lawsuit, known as the Aamodt case
after the first name in a lengthy list of water claimants.
The lawsuit was filed in 1966 by the state engineer's office to
adjudicate water rights in the Nambe and Pojoaque areas north of
Santa Fe. The case includes the four pueblos and thousands of
non-Indian water users, including the city and county of Santa Fe.
Settlement talks began in 2000.
Under the agreement revealed earlier this year, the federal
government will be asked to appropriate about $150 million for a
regional water system, which will cost an estimated $172 million to
The state has agreed to pitch in about $17 million. The county
will pay up to $10 million.
A settlement proposal in 2004 fell apart when the Bush
administration balked at paying most of a $280 million price tag to
build a regional system to pipe water to the Pojoaque Valley from the
Rio Grande. At one point, the administration refused to commit to
more than $11 million.
The latest proposal scaled down the regional water system.
Leaders from the pueblos, county and state are to travel to
Washington, D.C., in two weeks to discuss the settlement with New
Mexico's congressional delegation.
"The wild card is Congress," said Bill Hume, the governor's
director of policy and issues.
"I don't expect they'll go there and come back with a ringing
endorsement" because New Mexico's finances look good, he said.
"They'll say, 'Since you're so well off, why don't you pick up the
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., agreed.
"In light of a tight federal budget, securing the funds necessary
to implement this settlement will be very challenging," he said.
He said the settlement "will require an appropriate local and
But Maria Najera, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.,
said the impediment is not Congress, but the president.
"The Bush administration hasn't been willing to invest in Indian
water projects in the states, so we're concerned there won't be
support for this," she said.
The settlement calls for non-Indians to reduce groundwater pumping
from their wells by 15 percent, unless that's less than half an acre
foot -- as is the case for most of the wells.
In exchange, the pueblos would use the water imported from the Rio
Grande to support development and would not assert their senior water
rights during times of drought -- meaning they would not try to cut
off water supplies to non-pueblo users.
Earlier court rulings established that the pueblos had the
longest-standing right to the water.
Negotiations are slated in the fall on rules to govern the water
master, the division of the state engineer's office that will enforce
the settlement and an "impairment fund," which will pay restitution
to non-Indian wells harmed by pueblo pumping.
Finalizing the case "will still take years," said San Ildefonso
Pueblo's attorney, Peter Chestnut.
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