ISLETA, N.M. - A recent Supreme Court decision reaffirms a 2,500-member tribe's right to tell the city of Albuquerque what it can and cannot dump into the Rio Grande River.
The Isleta Pueblo sits six miles
downstream from where Albuquerque dumps 55 million gallons of
wastewater each day. Sewage from the city's 450,000 residents makes
the river water unhealthy for farming and religious ceremonies,
Isleta residents say.
Of particular concern are
ammonia, a byproduct of human waste, and arsenic, which comes out
of the ground in city wells. Arsenic magnifies itself as it works
its way up the food chain, says tribal councilwoman Verna Teller,
poisoning fish and Isleta's centuries-old fields of squash and
The tribe had little legal clout with
Albuquerque until 1987, when Congress amended the Clean Water Act,
granting 129 tribes around the country equal standing with states
on water-quality issues. Suddenly, Native Americans had the right
to dictate upstream water quality in rivers that flow through
Isleta was the first tribe to
establish a water-quality standards program allowed under the act.
"We jumped at it right away," says Teller, former tribal governor,
"because it was the only opportunity we had to do something about
the pollution legally."
Isleta set a strict
arsenic limit of 17 parts per trillion, many times cleaner than the
federal drinking water standard of 50 parts per billion. Teller
explained setting the standards extra high was intentional, a
bargaining wedge to negotiate "a happy medium" with the
At first, Albuquerque seemed cooperative,
says Teller, and Isleta gave the city a three-year grace period to
analyze its discharges into the Rio Grande and upgrade its sewage
But in 1992, shortly after the
agreement was reached, the city sued the federal Environmental
Protection Agency, which oversees water-quality programs.
Albuquerque shouldn't have to pay to clean up pollution, said
former Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez, when some of it came from
industries polluting upstream or from naturally occurring
"We wanted to have a ruling on the
ultimate authority to set those standards," said Chavez in a recent
interview. "What if they (the tribe) decide to change their mind
The city's change of heart surprised
Isleta. "When we left the meeting we were in cahoots," said Teller.
"Next thing we knew, we had a lawsuit."
five years, Albuquerque tried to convince two federal courts that
Isleta's request had no scientific basis, and that a clause in the
Clean Water Act directs the EPA to mediate disputes over water
In October 1996, the 10th
Federal Court of Appeals in Denver ruled against the city, saying
the tribe had legal authority to enforce water quality. The city
appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and when the court declined
to hear the case last November, it upheld Isleta's right to dictate
Albuquerque's water quality.
were ecstatic. "This reaffirms our conviction as a tribe to
protecting our environment," said Teller.
case is huge," said Brian Shields of the river conservation group
Amigos Bravos. "It has ramifications all over the country. And it's
the only way we can get that high (degree) of protection for the
Albuquerque officials were not so
happy. Now, if the EPA upholds Isleta's standards, the city will
have to spend more than $300 million to upgrade its sewage plant,
says city attorney Greg Smith. The plant could cost $20 million a
year to operate. "We're going to come nowhere near 17 parts per
trillion," Smith said of the arsenic standard. "The river itself
has substantially higher arsenic than that."
retrospect, said Lou Colombo, deputy staff director of the
Albuquerque city council, a softer approach to negotiations might
have been better for both sides. "We would have gone much further
trying to address and understand their concerns rather than taking
this to court."
Currently, tribal water quality
standards are being challenged in two states - the Mole Lake
Chippewa in Wisconsin, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai
Tribes and Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in
In New Mexico, seven other tribes, many
of which sit along major rivers, have developed water quality
The writer is a former High
Country News intern.
* Contact Isleta councilwoman Verna Teller at
* Contact Albuquerque city
attorney Greg Smith at