Pueblos again seek inclusion in Rio Grande decision-making

Experts say 2022 looks grim for the river, and irrigation season is likely to be brief and dry

By: - May 16, 2022 4:30 am

A dry Rio Grande in Albuquerque in September 2021 (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Members of six New Mexico Pueblos are calling for a seat at the table from the body that oversees how the Rio Grande’s water is split, managed and used between states. 

A coalition representing Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta attended the annual Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting on May 6. 

The compact

The commission was established by an agreement called the Rio Grande Compact in 1938 after years of lawsuits over the river’s waters between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. All three states and Congress ratified the agreement. 

Today’s commissioners:

  • Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein
  • New Mexico State Engineer Mike Hamman 
  • Texas Commissioner Bobby Skov 
  • The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation holds a non-voting seat and chairs the meeting 

The compact mandates “equitable apportionment,” of the Rio Grande, requiring water be delivered from Colorado to New Mexico at the state line, and for Texas at Elephant Butte Reservoir. The compact recognizes the treaty obligations between the federal government, Mexico and tribes in Article 16

Gov. Vernon Abeita (Isleta) spoke on behalf of the coalition, saying the Pueblos should be included in all correspondence and meetings that may impact access to Rio Grande water. They should also be invited to future commission meetings, he said. 

“In the past, Bureau of Indian Affairs represented Pueblos at commission meetings,” Albeita said. “It is now time the coalition interacts with the commission directly, and for the commission to engage the coalition Pueblos, so that our voices can be heard.” 

He said the Pueblos have cultivated and lived on their land “for time immemorial” and want a formal relationship to manage the water they depend on. 

This is not the first time the Pueblos have sought “a seat at the table,” a direct quote from a 1999 request to join discussions on the operating contract between the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation. 

The U.S. Department of the Interior relaxed rules last month to allow tribes more control over their water rights. The department also established a federal assessment team to help the six Pueblos resolve water claim issues between the state of New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Abeita said.

The Rio Grande, fed by snowmelt, is a vital source of water for irrigating crops, cities such as Albuquerque, and fragile desert ecosystems. Human-caused climate change is shrinking the Rio Grande, melting the snow too quickly in Spring and creating thirstier ecosystems that use the water. It also pushed people to use more water to make up for the heat. 

And this year is looking particularly grim for the river, experts told the commissioners, as meager flows will not replenish reservoirs already at a fraction of their capacity. When the water runs low, the compact limits how and where New Mexico can store it upstream of Elephant Butte, a measure enacted in the 1930s to ensure Texas and Mexico would receive their share. 

‘It’s my livelihood’: Drought and restrictions could kill farms along Rio Grande, farmers say

It’s going to be another short, dry year for irrigation. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned in its annual operating plan that the river could run dry through Albuquerque. If the monsoons fail to materialize, Elephant Butte, the state’s largest reservoir, could drop to about 2% of its 2-million acre-foot capacity. 

Supreme Court battle

Beyond the climate, there are other legal challenges to the river’s water, such as the 8-year old lawsuit between Texas and New Mexico before the U.S. Supreme Court, and filings from environmental groups alleging the federal government failed to protect endangered species, including by expanding dams. 

“Our water resources are being adversely affected, and are threatened by the ongoing mega-drought and climate changes, and the Texas v. New Mexico Supreme Court litigation,” Abeita said.

The Pueblos have unique water rights. In 1928, the U.S. recognized the Pueblos’ “prior and paramount” rights to water through a total 20,000 acres of Pueblo land. Much of the water was stored in El Vado Reservoir, until this year, when the Bureau of Reclamation started a two-year project to clean it out. 

Abeita ended his public comment by thanking the commissioners for not objecting to the U.S. Army Corps plan to store the water owed to the Pueblos in the Abiquiu Reservoir for the next few irrigation seasons while El Vado is under construction. 

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.