clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

INDIAN TRIBE'S FIGHT FOR CLEAN WATER ILLUSTRATES CHANGES ACROSS U.S.

The winds of change are blowing fiercely across American Indian country these days. After a few hundred years of being kicked around by "white eyes," Indians have begun kicking back.

They're insisting on their rights and a slice of the American pie, even to complaining about derogatory use of the term "redskins" or "braves."So it comes as no surprise that the Isleta Pueblo Indians in New Mexico insist on the city of Albuquerque cleaning up the waters of the Rio Grande flowing by and into their reservation 10 miles south.

For more than 50 years, the Isletas have been worried about the quality of water coming downstream from rapidly growing Albuquerque's sewage plant.

When federal law was changed to allow tribes to be treated like states in setting water-quality standards, the way was cleared for legal moves.

The tribe's water standards are much more strict than those of the state and city. Albuquerque officials consider the standards unrealistic.

Which is understandable, since they may force the city to spend $250 million to expand its sewage plant. That was about what the present plant cost.

But it won't stop there. It will cause a chain reaction upstream of Albuquerque, forcing cities like Santa Fe, Espanola and others discharging water into the river to raise their standards. And spend more money, of course.

Tribal officials point to the fact that the tribe has a "sovereign government" and it must do what it must do to protect its "natural resources."

Isleta farmers think the water discharged from the Albuquerque sewage plant is hurting their crops. They're afraid toxic chemicals will enter the food chain. They also oppose additional dumping of low-level radioactive waste into the sewers by Sandia National Laboratories.

The tribe is also disturbed because the river is used in Indian ceremonies involving immersion of tribe members.

It appears the tribe planned its water cleanup campaign very carefully.

Verna Williamson, Tribal Council president, told a group of environmentalists that the outcome of the case could affect many Indian tribes throughout the United States.

So far, it appears that the Albuquerque City Council is taking a conciliatory tack in dealing with the tribe, hoping to gain some points by negotiation.

But the Isletas appear to hold a winning hand.

Of course it will be the taxpayers who ultimately pay the cost of cleaner water in the Rio Grande. But taxpayers should also benefit from water im-prove-ment.

And isn't it refreshing to see American Indians winning battles? After all, the Isleta Pueblo Indians were settled on the Rio Grande long before the Spanish conquistadores even thought of exploring the area.