Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Three main cultures compete for the Land of Enchantment’s scarce water in northern New Mexico. Each culture has distinct water allocation traditions and has brought a different perspective of relationship to water and its use. The clash of these cultures makes northern New Mexico unusual and creates allocation tensions that don’t exist in other states.

Native Americans bring a traditional, communal view of water as a spiritual force to be respected. They look seven generations ahead as to what effect their day-to-day use of water will have on future generations. The Hispanic irrigation communities have a long tradition of water resources shared equitably in their communities. Both cultures have an underlying belief in respect for land and nature, the unity of life, spirit, art, work and community values. Both communities are aggressively trying to preserve their pre-Anglo water cultures.

Anglo property concepts were superimposed in New Mexico over the more communal societies of the Pueblos and Hispanic irrigation communities in the 19th century. They brought the idea that resources are commodities to be bought and sold. The complex, vague water laws they developed regarding Tribal, Pueblo and acequias make pursuing legal water settlements daunting. Violence, water wars, outright theft, land grabs and broken promises have left many Indigenous people displaced from their ancestral lands and wary of contact with US governmental agencies.

There have been many different “acts” designed to assimilate Indigenous people into the Anglo culture. The Dawes Act, a General Allotment Act severely detrimental to Native Americans, was replaced by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. This Act’s goals were to restore Indian culture, return surplus land to tribes, encourage tribes to self-govern and write their own constitutions. It also provided financial aid for reservation infrastructure.

That was 88 years ago.

Today, living conditions for many Native Americans are comparable to developing countries due to overcrowded housing and a lack of access to potable water and basic needs, with many people on the reservations stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Currently, New Mexico’s water allocation system treats water as a commodity. The complex politics of water that has evolved in the state through permit applications, water transfers from rural to urban and industrial users and adjudications over changes in water threaten communal uses and deprive Native Americans and Hispanics basic control over their future.

Water forms the fundamental basis of all human activity in the high mountain deserts of the state. New Mexico has six moderately dependable rivers. The largest rivers are shared with other states and Mexico. Major decisions made by New Mexicans concerning their water have to consider the claims of competing rivals both in and out of state.

With dwindling water supplies both in the San Juan and Rio Grande river basins from drought, climate change and over allocation, the main avenue Native Americans have had to make their voices heard on issues involving this life-giving resource is costly, lengthy litigation. When it comes to water, they face a mountain of red tape. Contamination and allocation issues, lack of physical access, broken promises from the US government, scarcity due to climate change and outside development on ancestral and archaeological sites simply pile on the obstacles.

Federal, state and local agencies have been the dominant force in water planning for New Mexico since statehood. Water is being divided out to municipalities, industry and private users and often leaving Tribal and Pueblo Nations empty handed. Over-allocation of the Rio Grande is so extensive that water is imported from neighboring basins just to keep the river flowing. Developments like Santolina, planned to be the size of Santa Fe upon completion, are in line ahead of Native Americans, holding their huge water buckets.

“It’s a system that we developed where we didn’t account for the needs of our Native American people who have lived here since time immemorial,” said Grace Haggerty, program supervisor for the Interstate Stream Commission, commenting on the water planning system at the New Mexico Water Data meeting in July 2021.

There are 23 Indian tribes located in New Mexico – nineteen Pueblos, three Apache tribes (Fort Sill Apache Tribe in Akela Flats, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Mescalero Apache Tribe) and the Navajo Nation. Water is sacred to Tribal and Pueblo Nations and is vital to their cultural practices, health, agriculture and economic development, just as it is to Hispanics and Anglos. Native foods, water, medicines, language and ceremonies, as well as their traditional techniques of farming, hunting and fishing, are jeopardized by population migration, contaminants and business and land development.

Rio Grande River in Albuquerque Credit: Michelle Dillon/Stone Crow Photography

Uniquely New Mexican Ongoing Water Clashes

Sovereign Tribal and Pueblo Nations are entitled to the most senior rights of New Mexico’s waterways under Western water law’s principle, “first in time, first in right.” However, they have fought decades of court battles for their rights to the water systems their ancestors used for hundreds of years. The judicial system has been their primary way to be included in the dialogue about water quality, water quantity and access to infrastructure funding to sustain their way of life.

Over a dozen active water rights adjudications, involving 18 tribal and pueblo nations, with the oldest one filed in 1966, are moving like cold molasses through the US courts. These hard-earned “paper rights” essentially are promises on paper that often are not kept.  

Mora Valley Acequias vs the Picuris Pueblo

For centuries, before statehood, Picuris Pueblo says its water, part of the Rio Grande Basin, has been stolen and pushed over the mountains into the Mora River in the Arkansas River Basin where irrigators claim rights to it, too. Reaching a sharing agreement, in which Mora would receive less water but Picuris wouldn’t get it all, has been rejected by the Pueblo and some of the irrigators. 

“We have no issues with anyone on our same watershed,” said Picuris Tribal Interpreter Cecilia Shields. “Of course, we’ll share with them, but not with users taking the water where it wouldn’t naturally go.” 

Santa Fe vs Cochiti Pueblo

As Santa Fe scrambles not to run out of water in a few decades, the Pueblo of Cochiti is trying to protect their land that starts from a diversion of Santa Fe’s effluent back to the Rio Grande, enabling the Buckman Direct Diversion to extract an equivalent volume for later use.

The Pueblo believes that the diversion is detrimental to all downstream users, including the landscape around the Santa Fe River which possesses a living significance to the Pueblo. The Pueblo says there has been no Tribal consultation by the city.  A coalition of stakeholders, organizations and community members living downstream of Santa Fe addressed a letter to city councilors requesting sufficient public input into the diversion project.

Tewa Pueblo vs Mining Pollution

Contaminated water is pervasive in northern New Mexico where mining companies have left groundwater sources with elevated levels of toxic chemicals like arsenic and uranium. The Tewa Pueblo of New Mexico lives daily with uranium and PCBs contamination, the legacy of pollution from uranium mining. The Tribe’s population, once over 3,000 people, is now about 1,500.

Kathy Sanchez, a member of the Pueblo and co-founder of Tewa Women United, suspects their proximity to the old uranium mines and the Los Alamos National Laboratory are the source of their health problems and population drops.

“Animals have died off or left, the water is no good. This is not the world that we know and rely on. It’s contaminated our culture,” Sanchez said. “We never knew things like cancer. Now everyone has cancer. You can’t say that all of these birth defects and miscarriages aren’t connected (to the contamination).”

Recent Federal Legislative Action for Tribes and Pueblos

Two bipartisan, bicameral bills, the Water Data Act (H.R. 7792) and Rio Grande Water Security Act (H.R. 7793) combined in the Senate as S.4236, were introduced before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on May 25. U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury cosponsored the Tribal Access to Clean Water Act along with the re-authorization of the Pueblo Indian Irrigation Fund.  

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provides more than $13 billion in funding to directly support Tribal communities and makes Tribes eligible to apply for or request billions in discretionary, formula and other funding. In total, this funding represents the single largest investment in Tribal infrastructure to date. 

In May 2022 the Biden Administration released the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Tribal Playbook. The playbook identifies programs and sources of funds specifically set aside for Tribal communities under the law and provides guidance on where to seek technical assistance. 

Even though the Anglo allocation system has dominated for more than a century, communal traditions survived and show signs of resurgence. Across the Southwest Indigenous platforms, #LandBack signifies the need to reclaim ancestral landscapes and protect the sacred and cultural resources they contain. There is also a #WaterBack movement to reclaim water rights for Indigenous people. The Pueblo Action Alliance’s #WaterBack campaign states “We can’t have #LandBack without #WaterBack” and signals a deeper call to action.

The Indigenous knowledge base is an underutilized resource in water conversations on how we track, manage and steward water usage amidst dwindling supplies and climate change. Indigenous wisdom and expertise in planning policies and laws would draw from a knowledge base of hundreds of years of inhabiting the desert southwest and could have the ability to provide problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the poor.

Rio Grande River Credit: Michelle Dillon/Stone Crow Photography