Sandia Pueblo joins in fight to pressure Congress to change clean water law

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Sandia Pueblo, New Mexico (AP) 9-07

The Rio Grande used to be more than just a shallow sliver cutting its way through sand bars on this pueblo’s western edge, and the dry stream beds that descend from the mountains on the eastern front once channeled summer runoff strong enough to move granite boulders.

“I mean you could hear those boulders come tumbling down. We would get up in the middle of the night just to watch them come through,” Sandia Pueblo Gov. Victor Montoya said as he reminisced about his childhood. “It was nice.”

Things have changed, but one thing that remains the same is the pueblo’s reverence for the water that runs through the heart of the small community.

The pueblo has joined state officials, sportsmen and conservationists from across the country who are throwing their support behind federal legislation that aims to clear up what is protected by the Clean Water Act.

“It’s very important, not just to us Native Americans, but to everybody,” Montoya said. “Without water, where are we? We wouldn’t be around.”

Supporters of the Clean Water Restoration Act say the original law has been muddied over the years by a pair of split Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of waters that are eligible for protection.

Guidelines issued this summer by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers also have made it harder to protect intermittent streams and wetlands unless they are connected to traditional waterways.

The implications of how the Clean Water Act is interpreted stretch far beyond Sandia Pueblo to the rest of the arid West, where civic leaders grapple each day with the prospect of not having enough water to sustain their rapidly growing communities.

“All of the Southwestern states have this situation where something close to 80, 90 percent of their surface waters are these ephemeral and intermittent streams,” said Jan Goldman-Carter, wetlands and water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, which supports the restoration act.

Conservationists contend that unless Congress acts, these waters could be left vulnerable.

Kent Salazar, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said the original act had bipartisan support when it was crafted in the early 1970s and it has worked well for three decades.

“To make these changes now and threaten our way of life and our water, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We need to get people aware of what’s going on.”

While no one is against clean water, developers along with farmers and other business groups see the legislation as an expansion of federal power and question whether the EPA would have the funds necessary to enforce the law if more waters would fall under federal protection.

They are concerned that the legislation would become a vehicle for protecting every wet area in the country, possibly even ditches and groundwater.

Critics also point to Supreme Court decisions that narrow the definition of water protected under the law to navigable waterways and those bodies of water that are linked to such waterways.

“When you codify law contrary to a Supreme Court decision it’s double edge sword,” said Howard Hutchinson, executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties and a member of the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission. “Sometimes you correct laws that are well off their mark and other times you’re taking some very good deliberations and turning them on their head.”

He added that if the legislation would pass, lawyers would be eager to test it and judges would be forced to make rulings based on emotional arguments.

Denise Fort, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, said much has changed since the Clean Water Act was first passed and that lawmakers who drafted the legislation were thinking more about protecting waterways like the Potomac and the Hudson, not intermittent streams or playas in the West.

“In terms of Western environments, there are several problems with several places where the Clean Water Act isn’t good enough for what we are trying to do and for what we need to do,” she said.

For example, she said, the act does not address groundwater.

“And for westerners, what would be more important?” she asked.

Fort said a number of environmental laws could stand to be rewritten now that people have a better scientific understand of things.

Supporters of the legislation are hopeful that the House will act on the measure before the end of the year. It already has the backing of Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., but the rest of New Mexico’s delegation has yet to take a position.

Given the record of bipartisan support for clean water, Jill Smith, Sandia Pueblo’s environmental attorney, said she doesn’t believe it will have much trouble passing.

“I think the bigger roadblock to getting it passed will be that Congress has much larger issues on its plate like Iraq and other matters,” she said. “This is probably important to a lot of people but whether they actual can move it is going to be the question.”

Sandia Pueblo is the first New Mexico tribe to publicly back the legislation, but Montoya said he didn’t take a stance on the matter to be recognized as a leader.

“We want to protect what we can for our future generations and if we have to be in the forefront, then that’s where we will be,” he said.

His goal: “Hopefully, we can restore this and leave something that is beautiful and clean for our grandchildren.”