INDIAN WATER RIGHTS
SENATE PANEL OKS WATER DEALS

N.M. delegation pushes for settlements; president promises veto
By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican, Published: September 24, 2008

Two long-running Indian water-rights cases have moved another small step closer to resolution, but the finish line still is tall hurdles away -- and includes the threat of a presidential veto.

The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Tuesday approved legislation to settle the Aamodt and Abeyta water-rights claims in Northern New Mexico, sending the measure on to the full Senate. The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Sens., Pete Domenici, a Republican, and Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat. A related bill was introduced in the House by Congressman Tom Udall, a Democrat. This is the third attempt by the New Mexico delegation to get legislation for the settlements approved.

Aamodt involves the water-rights claims by four pueblos -- Tesuque, Nambé, San Ildefonso and Pojoaque -- Santa Fe County, the city and nonpueblo water-rights holders in the Pojoaque Valley.

Abeyta is a water-rights case involving the claims of Taos Pueblo, the town of Taos and acequia as well as community water associations in the Taos Valley.

"These water claims languished for decades in federal court, leaving New Mexicans uncertain about the future," Bingaman said in a statement. "This legislation would enact into law the negotiated settlements that pueblos, local government and other interested parties have worked so hard to produce."

"We face an uphill climb to get it through Congress and to the White House, but we will continue to push for its enactment," Domenici said in a statement.

A group of nonpueblo residents remains concerned over details of the complicated Aamodt settlement and what it ultimately will mean for their water rights. "I'm against it until I know exactly what it means," said Gary Clark, a Nambé resident who irrigates a couple of acres from an 1859 acequia, echoing the concern of other neighbors.

Some remain opposed to a regional water system proposed as part of the settlement. "I think the Aamodt settlement is terrible," wrote Michael Rodriguez, a Rio en Medio resident, via e-mail. "It is a water grab."

Clark, Rodriguez and 10 other people in the valley who spoke with The New Mexican recently also think what they say has mattered little to officials and attorneys who agreed on the Aamodt settlement.

Others say the settlement is the best chance to protect both pueblo and existing nonpueblo water rights and finally resolve the decades-old, expensive Aamodt case.

State, county, city and pueblo attorneys worked for five years to reach the settlement in the Aamodt case. In Abeyta, long negotiations between Taos Pueblo and the Taos Valley Acequia Association led to an eventual settlement.

The Bush administration continues to oppose the Indian water-rights legislation, in part because of the amount of federal funding requested in both settlements.

Another Indian water-rights settlement involving Navajo Nation claims to the San Juan River also is awaiting congressional approval.

The bill seeking settlement of the Aamodt and Abeyta water-rights claims is supposed to ensure water rights for pueblos, which have the oldest rights in the valley, as well as nonpueblo residents. The bill also authorizes the secretary of the Interior to develop water infrastructure in the Rio Grande Basin.

The regional water system proposed in the Aamodt settlement would cost the federal government $160 million in the next decade. The state and Santa Fe County would contribute $117 million for the project.

The Taos settlement is expected to cost the federal government about $114 million, with the state contributing $15 million.

Robin Martin, owner of The New Mexican, is a party to the Aamodt case.

Contact Staci Matlock at 470-9843 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.

Copyright (c) 2008 The Santa Fe New Mexican