July 21, 2023

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo reaches key milestone in water rights dispute

Hannah Grover/NM Political Report

After decades of litigation, officials are set to sign a settlement agreement in the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo water rights case regarding the Rio Chama.

The agreement does not settle all of the issues that the Pueblo has brought forward, but it does settle the Ohkay Owingeh’s claims on the Rio Chama, Nat Chakeres, general counsel for the Office of the State Engineer, told the Interstate Stream Commission on Thursday. He said the “lion’s share of the (Pueblo’s) remaining claims will be on the Rio Grande.”

Chakeres and State Engineer Mike Hamman will likely attend a signing ceremony on Monday to sign the state’s portion of the settlement agreement for the Rio Chama portion of the Pueblo’s water rights claims.

The water rights case dates back to 1969 when it was filed in federal court.

“There’s been a lot of litigation over nearly every issue,” Chakeres said.

But, he said, the litigation regarding surface irrigation rights on the Rio Chama is wrapping, with only a few more outstanding issues to address. The Rio Chama stretches from its origins in the mountains of Colorado to its confluence with the Rio Grande near Ohkay Owingeh, which is located north of the City of Española.

The settlement agreement includes the Pueblo and state as well as the Asociación de Acéquias Norteñas de Rio Arriba, the Rio de Chama Acéquias Association, La Asociación de las Acéquias del Rio Vallecitos, Tusas, y Ojo Caliente, El Rito Ditch Association, and the City of Española.

The agreement calls for $131 million of state funding as well as two full time employees in the Office of the State Engineer and more than $818 million in federal funding. That funding is subject to both federal and state legislation, which will be needed to authorize the spending.

This funding will go to the Pueblo, acequias and the City of Española.

The Pueblo is the only surface water user on the mainstem of the Rio Chama that has not had their water rights adjudicated. Additionally, the Pueblo is located at the bottom of the river system, which often means they do not receive adequate water supplies.

The Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo is by far the largest water rights holder on the Rio Chama and holds the most senior rights.

The settlement agreement includes shortage sharing, which Chakeres says binds the Pueblos to a shortage sharing agreement that ensures the Pueblos get their water. In exchange, the Pueblo has agreed not to make priority calls. A priority call would mean that the Pueblo would receive its share of water before junior acequias and non-Pueblo water users.

Ecosystem benefits

The settlement agreement will benefit more than just the Pueblo. The Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh hopes to use money available through the agreement for ecosystem restoration below Abiquiu Dam.

“The installation of Abiquiu Dam really changed the river channel below Abiquiu,” Chakeres said. “And a lot of the effort for Ohkay Owingeh has been to try to figure out how they’re going to restore the bosque to something that it’s more healthy, it’s more vibrant, there’s a better riparian habitat there. And this settlement allows the Pueblo to use some of their water rights to do that.”

He said a lot of engineering and planning is needed for that restoration to occur.

Ohkay Owingeh, under the agreement, will receive $818.3 million of federal funding for restoration and maintenance of riparian areas along the Rio Chama and Rio Grande and for developing water and wastewater infrastructure, acquiring water rights and managing and administering existing Pueblo water rights. 

Municipality agrees to well buffer zone

The city limits are near Ohkay Owingeh and the Pueblo wanted a buffer zone to ensure that the city’s wells would not impair its access to water. The city agreed to that in exchange for the Pueblo agreeing not to contest city wells outside of the buffer zone.

“The city has some real water supply challenges, they’re meeting their full supply right now they have some San Juan-Chama water that’s helping them do that. But they have a lot of water contamination issues and so it’s always a concern of theirs to make sure that they have the option to be able to drill additional wells if they need to, if some of their production wells have contamination,” Chakeres said.

At the same time, the city will receive $32 million in state funds to develop wells that will provide safe drinking water to residents. 

Agreement includes funding for acequias

Acequias, under the settlement agreement, could receive $98.5 million in state funds for water supplies and infrastructure.

Chakeres said the acequias were seeking a lot more money, but the negotiations landed on $98.5 million.

“Now we’re going to have to see if the Legislature’s going to be on board with it,” Chakeres said.

Chakeres said that there are more than 80 acequias that do need help with planning, design and engineering.

He said a “fair amount of this money” will go to the acequias trying to acquire water from the San Juan River that is transported to the Rio Chama that they can lease and store in available storage pools. He said the acequias really need this in order to maintain “the viability of their practices and their communities in this drying climate we have.”

State focus on resolving Native water settlements

The Ohkay Owingeh water rights case is one of the many pending water rights settlement negotiations with Native American tribes that had, at least in some cases, been stalled for decades, Chakeres said.

He said, in the past, New Mexico has not devoted enough resources, including staff, to Native American water rights settlements. But, in recent years, there has been a renewed focus on settling these disputes. 

“We’ve been moving really fast and pushing really hard to get the settlements done in accordance with what Governor (Michelle) Lujan Grisham would like to get done during her term in office,” Chakeres said.