Friday, September 12, 2008

N.M. Senators Recommend Action on Aamodt & Abeyta Indian Water Settlement Bill

U.S. Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman today advised that the Bush administration’s ongoing opposition should not dissuade Congress from moving forward on legislation authorizing Indian water rights cases in northern New Mexico.

Listen to Domenici questioning Interior Department witness on northern New Mexico water settlements legislation.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee today received testimony on the Aamodt and Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 2008 (S.3381), legislation introduced by Domenici and Bingaman in July. Domenici serves on the committee, and Bingaman today testified at the hearing on behalf of the bill.

S.3381 would resolve Indian water rights claims associated with the Rio Pojoaque Basin (Aamodt case) and the Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement (Abeyta case).

At the hearing, Interior Department officials, as they have with other New Mexico Indian water settlements, explained the Bush administration’s opposition to S.3381—primarily citing cost concerns raised by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This opposition comes despite the fact that the two statements include an agreement by the state and local parties to contribute 33 percent of the implementation costs—a substantially higher percentage than other enacted settlements.

“I’m not very happy. After years of difficult negotiations, all the give and take, and all these very real changes to reach this point we only hear about opposition from the administration,” Domenici said. “We ought to approve this bill despite the administration’s opposition. We do not believe we can negotiate for any lesser amount of money and I believe the OBM is making some bad mistakes in its judgment of this bill.”

“The Bush administration’s opposition to this carefully negotiated bill is disappointing but not surprising. These settlements cost less and require a bigger state and local contribution than water rights settlements that this administration has supported in the past,” Bingaman said. “I see no reason for us to stop building support for our bill’s passage. We have a few weeks left in this session and Senator Domenici and I will work hard during that time to gain strong Congressional support for these important water settlements.”

S.3381—as well as a companion House bill (HR.6768) introduced by Congressman Tom Udall—is based on years of extensive negotiations between many parties, including Indian, local, state and federal parties.

The outcome of those talks, reflected in S.3381, will assure water resources for the pueblos while providing for the current and future water needs of non-Indian interests in north-central New Mexico. It would also resolve litigation that has been pending in the federal courts since the 1960s.

The bipartisan legislation would authorize the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Commissioner of Reclamation, to develop water infrastructure in the Rio Grande Basin, and to approve the settlement of the water rights claims of the Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Tesuque and Taos pueblos.

The Aamodt settlement includes the construction of a regional water system in and around Santa Fe County that will benefit the pueblos and their non-pueblo neighbors. Project construction plus other benefits to the pueblos are expected to cost the Federal government approximately $160 million within the next decade. The state of New Mexico and Santa Fe County are expected to contribute approximately $117 million towards the cost of the project.

Implementing the Taos Settlement requires funding a number of small projects to help improve water use efficiency; groundwater management; and improve water quality in the Taos Valley. The pueblo will also receive direct funding to manage its water resources. In total, the Taos settlement is expected to cost the Federal government approximately $114 million. The state of New Mexico is expected to contribute another $20 million to the effort.

The Aamodt-Abeyta settlement legislation represents two of the three pending Indian water settlements pending in New Mexico. In April, the lawmakers introduced legislation to authorize the settlement reached to resolve the Navajo Nation’s water rights claims in the San Juan River Basin.

At today’s hearing, testimony was also received from Charles J. Dorame, chairman of the Northern Pueblos Tributary Water Rights Association, and Gilbert Suazo Sr., councilman, Taos Pueblo.

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