SANDIA PUEBLO — The six pueblos that share the middle Rio Grande are in the early stages of a legal process that could quantify their water rights, tribal and state officials said Monday.
Sandia Pueblo Governor Stuart Paisano told state lawmakers at the Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting that “it is time” to determine the specific amount of water that should be allocated. to regional pueblos.
“It will be a huge task,” he said.
Paisano chairs a water coalition of the pueblos of Cochiti, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta.
At least twice in the past decade, the coalition has asked a federal team from the US Department of the Interior to assess the feasibility of settling their claims to the river.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland endorsed that team earlier this year.
Josh Mann, a water lawyer and former Home Office attorney, said the agency may be reluctant to a negotiated legal settlement.
The middle Rio Grande basin was not judged.
This means that a court has yet to formally define which entities have water rights in the area.
The adjudicated basins are governed by a court decree and all entities are legally bound to the water rights defined in this decree.
“When you don’t have that process, you have to find another way,” Mann said. “There is no precedent for this. It has never been done anywhere in the United States”
The water attorney said the process will likely require creative solutions such as federal and state legislation to balance negotiations over tribal water rights in the face of dwindling water supplies along the river.
Water rights agreements are time-consuming and expensive, said Kelly Brooks Smith, who heads a tribal water law office at the State Engineer’s Office.
Next is the construction of infrastructure projects that use these water rights.
“It’s not just projects, but it’s how everyone is going to get along and how are we going to administer going forward,” she said.
Federal agencies and regional irrigation districts recognize that pueblos have the oldest claims to river water rights.
Each year, a certain amount of water is reserved for the use of the pueblo.
Organizations must conserve this “priority and essential” water even if there is not enough for other irrigators or municipalities.
But Paisano said water rights are handled with a “use it or lose it” attitude.
Every December, water that pueblos have not used is sent downstream to Elephant Butte Reservoir to help New Mexico meet Rio Grande Compact delivery obligations.
Sandia’s governor said the pueblos needed “a seat at the table” and deserved compensation for helping New Mexico meet those deliveries.
“It is very important that we continue to work collectively, government to government, ensuring that the future of our water is protected and that we treat water with the utmost respect,” Paisano said.