Skip to content

Heinrich, Leger Fernández Introduce Legislation to Approve Ohkay Owingeh Water Rights Settlement

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) introduced legislation to approve the water rights settlement of Ohkay Owingeh and participating non-Tribal parties for water in the Rio Chama Basin. U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) are original cosponsors.

The Ohkay Owingeh Rio Chama Water Rights Settlement Act establishes a trust fund to implement the negotiated settlement between the United States, the State of New Mexico, the City of Española, the Asociación de Acéquias Norteñas de Rio Arriba, El Rito Ditch Asociación, La Asociación de las Acéquias del Rio Tusas, Vallecitos y Ojo Caliente, the Rio de Chama Acéquia Association, and Ohkay Owingeh to settle the Pueblo’s water claims in the Rio Chama Basin. The funding will be used for Ohkay Owingeh’s development of water resources to ensure the Pueblo has appropriate water infrastructure to use the water that they have claim to in the basin.

“The United States has a moral obligation to honor its trust responsibility to Tribes. By approving this negotiated water settlement, we can finally unlock critical water infrastructure funding and resources that will allow Ohkay Owingeh to access and use the water they own in the Rio Chama Basin,” said Heinrich. “I am committed to finding a path forward for this legislation and the other Tribal water settlement bills that I am leading this Congress. It is absolutely essential that we deliver long-term water security to Tribes and all of our communities in New Mexico.”

“The legislation we’ve introduced alongside Senator Heinrich and the New Mexico Congressional Delegation honors the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, local acequias, and historic communities by sharing the life-giving waters of the Rio Chama Basin as necessary. Additionally, the bill provides for long-needed bosque restoration that increases water availability and brings back the beauty of the river while including sharing terms that benefit all water users on the Rio Chama —including the city of Española and the 80 community ditches and acequias that rely on the Rio Chama.” said Leger Fernández. “Water is a scarce resource, we are grateful that, instead of competing for that water or fighting decades-long legal battles, these communities have agreed to allocate it equitably so every community thrives.”

“I’m proud to help introduce this legislation to approve this negotiated settlement, because access to water is part of the federal trust responsibility,” said Senator Luján,member of Indian Affairs Committee. “Once approved, this settlement will allow the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo to access to water infrastructure funding and the resources needed to share the Rio Chama Basin equitably among all water users. This legislation will help fulfill our federal trust responsibility and promote water security for the region.”

"We must honor the trust and treaty responsibilities we have ensuring water security for our Tribes," said Stansbury. “The Ohkay Owingeh Rio Chama Water Rights Settlement Act benefits all water users on the Rio Chama, including the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, because we know in New Mexico that water is life”

Read full bill text here.

The legislation has received strong support from Ohkay Owingeh, non-Tribal organizations, and state and local entities in the Rio Chama Basin.

“Ohkay Owingeh thanks Senator Henrich, Senator Lujan, and Representatives Leger Fernandez and Stansbury for sponsoring this legislation that implements our settlement.  We have diligently worked with our neighbors to reach agreement on a settlement that meets our current and future water needs while also being fair to the other users with whom we share the Rio Chama,” said Ohkay Owingeh Governor Larry Phillips, Jr. “This Settlement also resolves litigation aimed at remedying decades of federal actions that deprive our bosque of water necessary to maintain its ecological functions.  These actions have prevented our Pueblo from fully exercising cultural and spiritual practices that are interwoven with the health and well-being of our members. This settlement will provide the means to restore this sacred resource.”

“Ohkay Owingeh, the State of New Mexico, the State Engineer, the City of Española, and acequia associations representing over 80 Acéquias on the Rio Chama entered into a settlement agreement in July of 2023 to settle the water rights claims of Ohkay Owingeh on the Rio Chama Stream System,” said New Mexico State Engineer Mike A. Hamman. “This legislation will provide funding for Ohkay Owingeh to restore the Rio Chama Bosque and build reliable infrastructure for both the Pueblo and some of the oldest acéquias in New Mexico. The approval of the Settlement Agreement will protect existing uses of water in the stream system and ensure water security for Ohkay Owingeh and its neighbors, and will protect the way of life in Northern New Mexico for generations to come.”

“As a center of social and commercial activity in the Española Valley, the City of Española has a vital interest in providing a reliable, safe and sustainable water supply to meet the needs of the community,” said Española Mayor John Ramon Vigil. “Funding to be received by Española under the agreement will provide the City with additional wells to protect the City’s long-term water security. The settlement also provides protection from challenges by others in the Chama Stream System to the City’s water rights. Implementation of the settlement agreement, as provided for by the Settlement Act, will help to ensure a sustainable supply of water to meet the needs of residents of Española and the entire Española Valley.”

“If this settlement is approved, it will be a monumental achievement for our part of Northern New Mexico. The settlement is comprehensive and resolves major issues on the river. In addition to settling the Pueblo water rights and providing for long-needed bosque restoration, the agreement comprises shortage sharing terms that benefit all water users on the Rio Chama, including the 80 community ditches and acéquias that rely on this vital source for their continued existence and vitality,” said Antonio Manzanares, President, Asociación de Acéquias Norteñas de Rio Arriba. “This is not only a tribal water rights settlement; it is a stream-system-wide settlement that protects all water users through mutual agreement to work together to provide water equitably to all, instead of battling over priority calls. In addition to greater security in water supply and preservation of our historic way of life and cultural practices, the settlement will generate substantial economic benefits up and down the valley, increasing business activity and employment opportunities. This is a well-crafted, inclusive and comprehensive settlement. Residents of the Rio Chama Valley are greatly encouraged and very supportive of this settlement.”       

“The Rio Chama Acequias, including the El Rito Ditch Association, have good relations with our Pueblo neighbors, and we surely welcome the end of four decades of litigation since the adjudication, State of New Mexico and United States v. Aragon et al., was filed in 1969,” said Steve Gallegos, President, El Rito Ditch Association. “Over the last several years, the parties have engaged in lengthy settlement discussions to resolve conflicts over the limited surface waters of the entire Rio Chama. Resolving the Pueblos' water rights claims through litigation or curtailing junior water users based on the Pueblos' senior priority would not solve the problem of increasing scarcity within the Rio Chama. The Settlement Agreement is the solution. It will provide funding for ‘wet water’ projects to address this problem.  It will foster harmony and cooperation among all water users.”

“Water is a scarce and valuable resources that needs protection and needs to be used in a manner that recognizes the unique historic, social, cultural, and geographic characteristics of both the Pueblo and acequia water users. Water resources are being affected by climate change and the drought conditions that face the Southwest, and it is vitally important that this resource be used to the extent possible to satisfy the rights negotiated by the parties in the settlement,” said Darel Madrid, President, Rio de Chama Acéquia Association. “This settlement provides for greater reliability of supply and greater certainty of water use and the funding from such settlement will provide jobs on the Pueblo as well as in neighboring communities, bringing in desperately needed revenues to improve the lives of the people within the Rio Chama Basin. Federal approval of the settlement will result in a win-win situation for all parties.”

“The Rio Chama stream system is the only source of irrigation water for historic acequias that depend upon its supply, as well as for Ohkay Owingeh. La Asociación relies on water from the Rio Vallecitos, Tusas, and Ojo Caliente, which are tributaries to the mainstem Rio Chama. There is no storage capability within La Asociación’s drainages, and all its acequias depend entirely on the spring runoff, with hopes of a good monsoon season. There is often a shortage of water in the senior ditches, and normally the Río Ojo Caliente will dry up in late May,” said Jerome F. Gonzales, President, La Asociación de las Acéquias del Rio Vallecitos, Tusas y Ojo Caliente. “The settlement recognizes additional water rights for the Pueblo but contains safeguards to protect other water users from curtailment or impairment. In particular, the Pueblo agrees not to make priority calls against other water users, including domestic well owners. Also, the settlement will resolve issues concerning administration of water rights in a cooperative and transparent manner that will help avoid disputes in the future. Furthermore, the settlement contains provisions protecting acéquia traditional practices and property rights. La Asociación supports the settlement and the legislation needed to implement it.”

Additional Background on Tribal Water Settlements Legislation:

The introduction of this legislation follows Heinrich and Leger Fernández’s introduction of the Rio San José and Rio Jemez Water Settlements Act last year to implement two fund-based water settlements: one between the Pueblos of Jemez and Zia, the United States, the State of New Mexico, and non-Tribal parties; and another between the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, the United States, the State of New Mexico, and non-Tribal parties. The settlements are also strongly supported by all parties involved.

Luján, Heinrich, Leger Fernández, and Stansbury have also introduced legislation that amends the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project to ensure it has the resources and time needed to deliver drinking water to northwestern New Mexico communities in the San Juan basin, including roughly 43 Chapters on the Eastern Navajo Nation, the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the City of Gallup, which currently rely on a rapidly depleting groundwater supply of poor quality.

Last year, the entire New Mexico Congressional Delegation announced a $235.1 million allocation to continue fulfilling settlements of Indian water rights claims using funding from the Infrastructure Law and the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund. As part of that overall allocation, the Navajo-Gallup Water Project received $164 million from the Infrastructure Law and the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund. Another $2 million was directed to Navajo-Gallup Water supply operations, maintenance and replacement efforts. The Aamodt Water Rights Settlement, which includes the Pueblos of Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque, received $69.1 million in federal funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.