Urban sprawl is posing many threats to Indian country when it comes to tribal land and water rights. There is currently a plan in place to build what amounts to an entire new city west of Albuquerque. The project is called the Santolina Master Plan and it proposes to develop a reported 22 square miles, and 38,000 homes, atop what is known as the West Mesa. But opponents of the project argue the long-term effects could have very negative consequences to the water supply in the middle Rio Grande River watershed.
Many tribes across the U.S. who inhabit land close to urban areas that are subject to urban sprawl are already dealing with this concern, or will inevitably be dealing with it as the U.S. population continues to expand. The Pueblo of Isleta, which lies just a few miles south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande, is ready to take up the fight to keep this development from emerging.
“The Pueblo opposes the Santolina development,” said Pablo Padilla, the General Legal Counsel for the pueblo. “The pueblo feels the city and the developer (Barclays – based in the United Kingdom) have failed to prove they have sufficient water rights to supply water to the proposed development. The Pueblo believes the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority has not proven that it has the capability to have water service and waste water service to the proposed development.”
As reported earlier by ICTMN, according to scientists from NASA, Cornell and Columbia Universities, a team of top climate researchers stated in the report Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains that a mega-drought is looming, “In the Southwest and Central Plains of Western North America, climate change is expected to increase drought severity in the coming decades…leading to unprecedented drought conditions.”
Barclays has a history of buying up water rights for profit. After the financial crisis last decade, 21 projects run by SunCal, the real estate company that had bought the land for the proposed Santolina project went bankrupt. Barclays, the lender on the project, foreclosed and set up a new entity called Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, based in Delaware. The question that nearly everyone involved in opposing this project is asking, “Does Barclays have a hidden agenda?”
“This plan is coming from an outside source, outside the country that has no idea what the people of the Southwest, the people of New Mexico and the indigenous people deal with on a daily basis. They’re only looking at it from a profit-based perspective. We’re looking at it from the perspective of how do we sustain this land and our state for future generations,” said Juan Reynosa, Environmental Justice Organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).
“A big reason why we’re working on Santolina is not only to protect wildlife, ecosystems and water, but also to preserve the culture that goes along with the (Rio Grande) in this state,” added Reynosa, who has been working the field of environmental justice for nearly a decade. “It’s not just a little fight between community members and organizations against big corporations. It’s really people fighting to maintain our way of being, our quality of life and our culture.”
Padilla explained that the Pueblo of Isleta, as well as Albuquerque, are situated in the middle Rio Grande water basin and that, according to law, the Pueblo owns senior water rights to the basin. Although these rights have not been adjudicated to quantify the water rights throughout the basin, Isleta still maintains their senior water rights and has the right to use the water from the Rio Grande before other users.
“Our pueblo ancestors migrated to or come from these places that are near water sources for obvious reasons. The relationship between the people and the river is treated as something that is very sacred to the Isleta people – ceremony, custom and tradition,” said Padilla, who is from the Pueblo of Zuni and has a law degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law.
“Our Pueblo people have been living here in this part of the world for a long time. They’ve been able to have an interaction with the land that creates an institutional memory for the people that makes land use practices and decisions on where to place projects and how to live, where to get resources from – those things are ingrained in the institutional memory of the culture,” said Padilla.
“It’s a competition between the traditional water users and people who have big money, who want to come in and buy it out. There’s just not enough to go around, especially in a state like New Mexico,” concluded Reynosa.