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
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
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.
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.