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‘Water is the key’: New Mexico Pueblo leaders urge senators to back tribal water rights bills

An aerial view of the Pueblo of Laguna in the Rio San Jose Basin in northern New Mexico. The landscape is shades of brown and green.
Wikimedia Commons
The Pueblo of Laguna in the Rio San Jose Basin, pictured here, is one of the Indigenous communities in northern New Mexico working to resolve water rights settlements.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on Nov. 16 on a variety of tribal water rights settlement bills, including two that would impact Indigenous communities in the Mountain West.

For nearly 40 years, four Pueblos in northern New Mexico – the Pueblos of Jemez, Zia, Acoma and Laguna – have been working to access the water they’re owed by the federal government.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced two bills in September that would finally resolve that.

“The settlements will provide critically needed funding for water infrastructure to develop and distribute new water to Pueblo homes and businesses,” Heinrich said at the hearing.

The Pueblo of Jemez and Pueblo of Zia are located in the Rio Jemez Basin, where the Jemez River flows south into the Rio Grande. The Pueblo of Acoma and Pueblo of Laguna are in the Rio San Jose Basin, where the Rio San Jose flows south into the Rio Puerco, which is a tributary of the Rio Grande.

The Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna Water Rights Settlement Act would establish trust funds for both pueblos totaling $850 million. The Pueblos of Jemez and Zia Water Rights Settlement Act would do the same for both Native communities totaling $490 million.

The money would be used to for things like building water pipelines, repairing irrigation and wastewater infrastructure, and enhancing watershed protection.

In addition, both settlements are designed to create Pueblo water codes, which would govern permitting of uses of their water rights. This would provide processes for protests by parties impacted by Pueblo permitting decisions and ensure that water use under a Pueblo permit does not impair existing surface and groundwater rights.

Pueblo of Jemez Gov. Raymond Loretto, who gave a testimony at the hearing, said a water rights settlement is crucial for his people.

“We are not a wealthy tribe; we do not have casinos or vast energy resources,” Loretto said. “Instead, water is the key to our long-term health and stability and cultural preservation.”

Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Randall Vicente added that climate change is making access to that water more urgent than ever.

“Aquifers and streams that once fed the Rio San Jose, the lifeblood of our communities and supported our agricultural lifestyle, have been severely impacted and, in some cases, devastated,” Vicente said.

At the end of the hearing, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs gave unanimous consent to submit letters of support for both water rights settlement bills.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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