Our senators are right on this one

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By Ralph Damiani

New Mexico’s two U.S. senators reiterated their desire to have Congress authorize settlements for two decades-long Indian water rights cases here, despite opposition from the Bush administration.

A Senate committee heard testimony this week on the Aamodt and Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement Act of 2008, legislation introduced by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

The measure is based on years of negotiations between Indian leaders and local, state and federal officials. It would assure water resources for a handful of pueblos, while providing for the water needs of non-Indian interests in north-central New Mexico.

It is a good deal that should be supported. But officials with the Interior Department voiced concerns about the cost of the settlements during the committee hearing.

The settlements would require the federal government to pick up about two thirds of the cost, with the state and other parties contributing the rest.

The senators argued that contributions by New Mexico and the local parties is substantially higher than amounts agreed to in other enacted settlements.

“After years of difficult negotiations, all the give and take, and all these very real changes to reach this point we only hear about opposition from the administration,” Domenici said in a statement. “We ought to approve this bill despite the administration’s opposition.”

Domenici said during the Senate Indian Affairs Committee meeting that he doesn’t believe the federal government would be able to negotiate for a lesser amount. He added that he thinks the settlements are “very reasonable.”

Bingaman said he wasn’t surprised by the administration’s objections to the legislation.

“These settlements cost less and require a bigger state and local contribution than water rights settlements that this administration has supported in the past,” he said.

The legislation would authorize the secretary of the Interior to approve the settlement of water rights claims of the Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Tesuque and Taos pueblos and to develop water infrastructure in the Rio Grande Basin.

The Aamodt settlement calls for the construction of a regional water system in Santa Fe County that would benefit the pueblos and their neighbors.

Construction and other costs could total $160 million for the federal government. New Mexico and the county are expected to contribute about $117 million toward the project.

The Taos settlement involves several small projects aimed at improving water quality, efficiency and management in the Taos Valley. The federal government would pay about $114 million and the state about $20 million.

These are worthwhile projects and this is a good compromise that Congress should act on.