The Senate on November 19 approved legislation to settle the water rights claims of Taos Pueblo and the claims of the Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque – claims that have been in the courts for more than four decades. The bill also provides funding to implement the settlements, and includes $180 million to implement the Navajo settlement that Congress enacted last year.
The legislation – which must pass the House of Representatives before being sent to the president – resolves disputes over two of the longest-standing water rights cases in New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement Act, which settles the Abeyta case, approves an agreement signed in 2006 by officials from Taos Pueblo, the State of New Mexico and other interested water rights owners in the Taos area. The measure quantifies Taos Pueblo’s water rights and also protects the interests of local acequias, the Town of Taos, and other water users.
The Aamodt Litigation Settlement Act approves the 2006 agreement entered into between the Pueblos, the State, Santa Fe County, and non-Indian water rights owners in the Pojoaque Valley. The legislation resolves the water rights claims of the Pueblos in the Rio Pojoaque stream system and authorizes the construction of a regional water system in Santa Fe County that will benefit Pueblo and non-Pueblo residents.
In addition to codifying the Aamodt and Taos settlements, the bill includes $147.8 million to begin implementing them now and authorizes an additional $150.5 million to fully implement them in the years to come.
“With the strong backing of the Obama administration, we are able to finally bring these long-standing water claims to a positive conclusion. Under these settlements, thousands of New Mexicans will have the certainty about their water rights – a goal that is 40 years in the making,” Senator Jeff Bingaman said.
“Decades of work and negotiation have gone into the passage of this agreement to resolve the water rights claims of five tribes along New Mexico’s Rio Grande,” said Senator Tim Udall. “In an arid state like ours the importance of water rights cannot be overstated and this resolution is mutually beneficial to all water users in the Pojoaque and Taos valleys.”
The measure includes $66 million to purchase water rights and construct a number of projects to help improve water use efficiency, groundwater management, and water quality in the Taos Valley. The Pueblo will use its funding to assist with management of its water resources as specified in the settlement. The measure authorizes an additional $58 million in future spending, subject to the appropriations process to fully implement the settlement. The State of New Mexico is expected to contribute approximately $20 million to the effort.
Separately, the bill contains $81.8 million toward the implementation of the Aamodt settlement; it will be used to construct of a water system in the Pojaoque Valley that will serve Pueblo and non-Pueblo residents. An additional $92.5 million has been authorized for the project, also subject to the appropriations process. The State of New Mexico and County of Santa Fe will contribute approximately $117 million toward the cost of the water system and settlement implementation.
Finally, the bill sets aside $180 million to implement a third water settlement approved by Congress last year and construct the Navajo-Gallup pipeline.
“One of the most important aspects of this legislation is that it contains funding to implement the settlements of three of the longest-standing water rights cases in our state’s history. I applaud all of the parties who have worked so hard and for so long on these settlements,” Bingaman said.
“What also makes this passage so significant is that it puts in place the funding necessary to finally close the book on these agreements,” Udall continued. “It’s a major accomplishment that could not have been reached without the support of the President and the tribes, city, county, and community groups involved. I look forward to the House’s passage of this landmark legislation for these tribes.”
The legislation was included in a package of bills that also settled Native American water rights claims in Montana and Arizona and resolved the United States’ outstanding liability obligations to tribal members across the nation in the Cobell litigation and for farmers in the Pigford litigation.
On the Montana side,
In December 2009, the parties in the lawsuit agreed to settle the case, but federal lawmakers have yet to fund the settlement, which includes funding to resolve historical accounting and damage claims, establish a Trust Land Consolidation Fund and support Indian Scholarships.
Montana Blackfeet Tribal member Elouise Cobell, who first brought the suit against the federal government, thanked both senators for their effort in the fight.
“I want to thank Senators Baucus and Tester for leading the fight in the Senate to provide a long-overdue conclusion to this settlement. Too many Native Americans have died waiting for justice. My greatest optimism lies ahead hoping that today’s news gives way to permanent reform in the way the Departments of Interior and Treasury account for and manage Individual Indian Money accounts,” Cobell said.
“I want to thank Elouise Cobell for all her hard work and determination. This is an important step toward closing the chapter on a bitter legacy of broken promises. This settlement serves as a reminder that we have a trust obligation to American Indians and we’ve got to fight to hold the U.S. Government accountable,” said Baucus.
The legislation passed today also ratifies the Crow-Montana Water Rights Compact, which outlines the tribe’s authority over distributing, allocating and leasing water rights. It also provides funding for the development of water resources for irrigation, power, and other uses.
“Passing this water rights settlement is long overdue,” Tester said. “I’ve supported this settlement since it was in the Montana Legislature, and I’m pleased we finally crossed the finish line. A lot of folks worked together to get this through the Indian Affairs Committee and through the full Senate. It will lead to more opportunity and more reliable water resources for the Crow people.”
Tester negotiated with Wyoming’s senators for an entire year on details of the agreement. Baucus, the chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Finance, made funding available to implement the settlement agreement, built a bi-partisan compromise around the package that passed today, and led the successful effort to push the bill through the Senate.