New Mexico’s new governor must reckon with history

  • Greg Hanscom

  It's tough to get in a fight in New Mexico without getting everyone's grandparents involved. Here, history is somehow both deeper and closer to the surface than it is elsewhere in the West.

Take the Aamodt water rights case, for example, which High Country News covered back in 1984. On one side of the fight were the farming descendants of Spanish colonists, who claimed rights to water in the Pojoaque Valley north of Santa Fe. "We don't want all the water," said Orlando Romero. "We just want what was ours; what our grandparents, our great-great grandfathers, our great-great-great grandfathers, since 1598, gave their children to survive."

On the other side were Pueblo Indians, who were also laying claim to the water. The governors of the Nambe, Pojoaque, Tesuque and San Ildefonso pueblos responded to the farmers with a memo: "The Pueblos would like to remind their neighbors that they have lived through three non-Indian governments, beginning with the advent of the Spanish Colonialists in the late 1500s, all the way through the Mexican and Anglo settlements."

This case went far beyond the usual "old-timer vs. newcomer" posturing that plays out in every small Western town. One of the first challenges was to figure out which set of water laws applied - Spanish, Mexican, New Mexico Territory, U.S., or none of the above. Unlike other Indian tribes, whose water rights are tied to the date of the creation of their reservations, the pueblo tribes own their land - and their water - because they've been settled there since pre-colonial times, not because the federal government plopped them down on a reservation.

Needless to say, sorting these issues out is no easy task. In 1984, when HCN first covered Aamodt, the case was already ancient history: It had been initiated back in 1966. Today, almost 40 years after the suit was first filed, it still remains unresolved.

Now, armed with the proceeds of bustling casinos and newfound political clout, a host of the state's other pueblos and Indian tribes are getting ready to demand their fair share of New Mexico's water. As Paul Krza writes in this issue's cover story, it couldn't come at a more desperate time. New Mexico is limping into yet another year of withering drought. Recent summers have seen cities grabbing for the Rio Grande as their groundwater runs low, mobs of angry farmers blocking federal water managers from keeping water in the river for endangered fish, and environmentalists slinging lawsuits in an effort to save some semblance of the once mighty river.

And yet the mood among many New Mexicans is oddly optimistic. People of just about every cultural and political stripe are placing a huge amount of faith in a progressive new governor, Democrat Bill Richardson. Richardson brings with him an impressive set of credentials: Fifteen years as a U.S. congressman representing northern New Mexico, two years as President Clinton's Energy secretary, a stint as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a reputation as an international diplomat that has earned him four nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Born in California and raised in Mexico City, he's also a fluent Spanish speaker. And he's promised to look for a peaceful resolution to New Mexico's water wars.

If Richardson can deliver half of what is expected of him, he will have brought New Mexico a long way. But it may well prove to be the toughest challenge of his career. Probably no place else in the West is as deeply fractured as New Mexico. The skeletons of many a grandfather, and great-great-great-grandfather, haunt this state - skeletons that must be reckoned with, if New Mexico is ever going to find peace.