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DOJ Backs Santa Clara Pueblo in Water Easements Case

The DOJ is suing on behalf of the Santa Clara Pueblo, using its authority as trustee under the Indian Right-of-Way Act.
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The Department of Justice is suing a small northern New Mexico city for continuing to use expired water and sewer easements that run through Pueblo land.

The DOJ is suing on behalf of the Santa Clara Pueblo, using its authority as trustee under the Indian Right-of-Way Act. The Pueblo and the city of Espanola have intertwined histories, with the city occupying former Pueblo grant lands sold off in the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924. According to a complaint filed in federal district court in New Mexico on May 6, the city has failed to negotiate renewal of rights-of-way that expired in 1994 and 2002, and now its infrastructure is an unwelcome intrusion on the Pueblo.

“As a direct and proximate result of the city’s continuing willful trespass, the city has damaged and continues to damage the Pueblo and its land, and the governmental interests of the United States, and will continue to do so unless and until the trespass is remedied,” the complaint states.

If a settlement can’t be reached, the feds are asking the court to “issue an order ejecting the city from the subject property and permanently prohibiting the city from occupying or using the subject property and operating the water and sewer lines located thereon as part of the city’s water and sewer systems.”

Frank Coppler, Espanola city attorney, says ejecting the city would hurt both the city and the Pueblo. “The city’s water and sewer system is located in public roads, streets and highways,” he said. “That water system serves businesses and tribal enterprises on tribal land, and that water and wastewater system serves residences on the Santa Clara land occupied by members of the Santa Clara tribe and others. We believe the presence of the water and sewer system is an asset to the Santa Clara tribe, Santa Clara members and Santa Clara enterprises, without which they wouldn’t be able to exist.”

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Coppler said as far as Espanola is concerned, that asset should be payment enough.

“We built it,” he said. “We maintain it. We operate it. We provide the wells, the storage tanks, and the treatment of the water to Clean Water Act standards. And we maintain, operate construct the wastewater gathering system. It serves everyone, on and off the reservation.”

Besides, even if it wanted to, Espanola couldn’t pay the Pueblo for use of the easements.

“In 2007, the economy in Espanola took a nosedive,” Coppler explained. “In 2007, our general fund budget was $15 million. Today, it’s a little more than $10 million. In 2007, we were able to throw money at problems. We can’t do that any more.”

Coppler says he welcomes the lawsuit, for the chance it presents to finally address issues that have been brewing for years. It’s not just the question of trespass. The Pueblo has opposed improvements to the water system that are necessary for public health and safety, he said. Coppler hopes settlement negotiations, or a court-ordered mediation process, will help the entities achieve solutions.