September 10, 2009

Bills to Settle Long-running Water Disputes Clear Key Committee

Legislation Would Aid NM Tribes, Boost Federal Response to Indian Country Crime

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall today reported that a key Senate committee approved three pieces of legislation to increase federal support of New Mexico's Indian tribes and tribal lands – including two bills to settle decades' old water disputes and another to boost federal response to crime in tribal communities.

The three bills, including the Aamodt and Taos water rights settlements, were unanimously approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, of which Udall is as a member. Bingaman and Udall introduced the water rights bills earlier this year, and are co-sponsors of the crime legislation.

"I applaud the efforts of Sen. Udall and the entire Indian Affairs Committee for advancing these key water settlements. We're now a step closer to bringing closure to these decades-old disputes, and bringing water certainty to thousands of water users in northern New Mexico,” Bingaman said.

"The committee's passage of these bills marks a major milestone in the resolution of water rights claims for four tribes along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. Decades of work and dedication have gone into each settlement and I am pleased that the Indian Affairs Committee was able to pass these mutually beneficial pieces of legislation for all water users in the Pojoaque Valley. I look forward to working with Senator Bingaman and our colleagues to quickly secure passage of this legislation by the full Senate,” Udall said.

The bills include:

Aamodt Litigation Settlement Act (S. 1105). This bill finalizes water rights claims for the Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque, and authorizes the construction of a regional water system for the Pojoaque Valley 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 $170 million over the next 15 years. The state of New Mexico and Santa Fe County are expected to contribute up to $116 million toward the cost of the project, depending on the number of non-Pueblo water users served.

Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement Act (S. 965). In addition to finalizing the Pueblo of Taos' water rights, this bill will fund numerous projects to help improve water use efficiency; groundwater management; and improve water quality in the Taos Valley. The Pueblo of Taos will also receive direct funding to manage its water resources. The settlement also allows for the protection and restoration of the pueblo's Buffalo Pasture, a culturally sensitive and sacred wetland that is being impacted by non-Indian groundwater production. In total, the Taos settlement is expected to cost the federal government approximately $121 million. The state and local parties are expected to contribute approximately $20.2 million.

Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 (S. 797). This bill increases federal accountability and response to reservation crime; provides additional tools to tribes for fighting local crime; and reauthorizes federal programs designed to strengthen tribal police, courts and detention systems. The bill authorizes $934 million to be spent over five years.

"These water settlements are a long time coming. Both are the product of decades of litigation,” Udall said. "I am proud to say that today these settlements enjoy wide support in the communities they impact. As a result, these pieces of legislation will mark a major milestone in guaranteeing access to clean water for all users in northern New Mexico."

"These three bills are very good for Indian Country. The fact that they have cleared their first hurdle already this year bodes well for getting them enacted in a timely fashion,” Bingaman said.

All three pieces of legislation now move to the Senate floor for consideration by the full body. No date for floor action has been scheduled yet. In the House, the Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power held hearings on the two water rights bills on Wednesday.