By SAM MARKWELL
Note to Readers: The Progressive Voter Alliance of Central New Mexico has been holding monthly meetings at the Harwood Art Center in the Wells Park neighborhood of Albuquerque. Topics discussed at these meetings so far have included: opposing the injustices of the Albuquerque Police Department and the national system of policing and incarcerating poor people and people of color; cutting U.S. aid to the Israeli occupation of Palestine; and challenging the defunding and privatization of social services. Before each meeting the coordinating committee decides on a Unified Action for the month and they invite a featured speaker. The May meeting’s Unified Action was to get voters out for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Board of Directors Election on June 4th. In order to provide some context for the current election, I was asked to give a presentation. The following is an amended transcript of the paper I read from.
Most property-owning citizens—rural and urban— within the Rio Grande floodplain are eligible to vote in the upcoming Conservancy election. Many of the farmworkers, renters, and non-propertied people whose lives are very much affected by the District are therefore unable to vote for the Board of Directors that shapes policy decisions. This election has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any state-level election as the MRGCD tends to try and maintain a low profile. No publicity is good publicity in the business of water brokering, a philosophy that appears to inform the governance of the District’s current Chief Engineering Officer and legal counsel.
In recent years private landowners, the South Valley Regional Acequia Association, and the six Indian Pueblo Nations have all launched legal and political efforts to shift the power dynamics between the Conservancy and their communities. But the District’s persistent wrongdoings and varied problems with accountability are not a recent phenomenon. The history of its ninety-year tenure in administering vital flows of water is in many ways a history of injustices.
The order of this presentation is as follows: first, I’m going to run through the historical context in which the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District was created. Then I’ll touch on some of the protests against the District following its creation. And in conclusion, I’ll briefly describe the legal and policy dimensions that are important to consider for organizing around water, land, and agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande Valley today. The gist of this presentation is that the Conservancy District was formed in a way that violated the rights of the acequia communities and the six Pueblos in the Middle Rio Grande valley. These rights were recognized in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the New Mexico Constitution. My suggestion to those interested in making the District an accountable institution today is to address these wrongdoings and situate local organizing efforts within regional problems of resource use and development. It is crucial that organizing around these issues be informed by principles of social justice, local community based planning, and recognition of and respect for indigenous political self-determination.
The closest precursors to the Conservancy District were irrigation improvement projects on Indian lands created under the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the Reclamation Act of 1902. These projects were utilized to redistribute newly acquired public domain lands to individual citizens. Native peoples were not citizens of the U.S. at this time, and the Indian-to-white direction of redistribution was a main factor in reducing Indian landholdings. From 1881 to 1931 two thirds of recognized Indian land, 100 million of 152 million acres, was transferred into settler or public ownership. This redistribution was premised on U.S. authority to abrogate or selectively interpret treaty obligations to Native nations. The U.S. government used policy to work against traditional and customary land tenure and water use systems.
By the 1920s, the post-railroad influx of settlers and corporate resource extraction had caused massive deforestation and overgrazing that led to regular flooding and swamping in the Middle Rio Grande valley. At this point, there was little opposition to the idea of addressing the valley’s problems, but there were significant disagreements about the ways in which such drainage, flood control, and irrigation projects would be financially and administratively structured. For instance, in May of 1920 Pablo Abeita, from Isleta Pueblo, spoke before the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Congressional Committee on Indian Affairs, calling on them to “drain the land and not the Indian. If you drain our lands you will only be repairing a loss which came upon us by your coming upon us.” What is important here is the way that Abeita and the Pueblos called for a project on the basis of reparations, as something owed to native communities to reverse the effects of a long history of colonial exploitation of land, water, and labor.
Counter to these indigenous calls for reparative development and to the clear connection between overdevelopment by new settlers and area flooding, white political society in the valley associated the degradation of lands with the supposed racial inferiority of the valley’s communities and inadequate control over water. This logic resulted in the 1923 passage of the Conservancy Act, which enabled the creation of local Conservancy Districts in the state. The Conservancy Districts were led by a board of directors appointed by local judicial district judges (there were two for the MRGCD at the time) and they were financed by placing landowners in debt for the speculative benefits their lands would ostensibly receive. In the following years challenges from acequia communities targeted the MRGCD’s lack of accountability and the threat of dispossession that it posed. These challenges led to two New Mexico Supreme Court cases, both of which resulted in decisions arrogantly dismissing the opposition’s concerns. In line with the dominant white supremacy of U.S. society, Pueblo and acequia communities were denied rights of self-determination and white elites remained in charge of District policy and water distribution in the valley.
In 1928, Congress passed an act incorporating the Pueblos into MRGCD jurisdiction. John Collier and representatives from the All-Indian Pueblo Council framed their opposition to the act in no uncertain terms, stating that it would produce “terrorism and demoralization of the six Indian tribes.” In the decade following the 1928 Act, the Pueblos dodged the bullet of further dispossession at the hands of the District by renegotiating the terms of the debt through John Collier’s “Indian New Deal” and the federal Office of Indian Affairs. However, Pueblo water rights were still limited and subject to the District’s disposition, and U.S. Indian policy.
On the other hand, non-Indian farming communities were unable to avoid the dispossession of their lands and waters. Despite intense organizing throughout the 30s, primarily through the Middle Rio Grande Farmer’s Association, La Liga Obrera, and the Land Grant Heirs Association, farmers’ efforts to shift district policy and make the District more accountable ran into insurmountable obstacles. During the 1930s and 40s an estimated 10,000 farmers lost their lands, 90 percent of whom had Spanish surnames; most of these farmers were absorbed into the urban and migratory workforce.
During this period, the District failed to deliver on its promises to stop flooding and help farmers flourish in the valley. While farmers “delinquent” on assessments had their lands taken by the District, the insolvent District was bailed out by the federal government.
In the late 40s and into the 50s the Bureau of Reclamation (BR) incorporated the MRGCD, reimbursing bondholders and underwriting the Conservancy through the foreclosure of farmer’s properties and the infusion of new capital from the federal budget. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers piled dirt on the levees the MRGCD had constructed along the Rio Grande, turning the meandering and flooding river into a canalized funnel efficiently routed through the heart of the state. Maximizing output from a resource that was becoming increasingly scarce, in new and precisely calculated terms, was the order of the day.
Moments of resource scarcity, especially concerning water, have generated different regulatory schemas during the tenure of U.S. capitalist production in Western lands. The Conservancy was instrumental in shaping the estimated total possible consumption of water in the Middle valley during the time that the Colorado (1922) and Rio Grande (1939) and Upper Colorado Basin (1948) compacts were hammered out by state and national interests. Groundwater sources were increasingly exploited through new technological instruments in these decades. But the realization of the interconnection of ground and surface water sources spurred state regulators to set limits on groundwater pumping in 1956 by requiring the planned “retirement” of surface-water rights to accompany any new extraction. The estimated limits of water resources established during this time set the basis of “scarcity” that has been used to construct a privately traded rights-market to redistribute water rights.
From its inception through the 1960s the District maintained a policy of contesting the transfer of agricultural water rights to urban uses. After decades of maintaining a vested interest in maximizing industrialized agricultural production the Conservancy’s policy shifted to embrace its new role as manager of a pool of water rights that could be sold to urban speculators at bargain prices. The global transformation of agricultural production that had driven all but the largest commercial operators out of the general flow of U.S. trade by the 1960s placed farmers in a position where selling their commoditized means of production garnered more immediate monetary value than they could produce through cultivating crops. City, county, and state planning processes have since anticipated the eventual transfer of the entirety of regional agricultural water rights to urban uses.
In the 1970s, the Board of Directors of the MRGCD was opened up to an electoral process, and the valley’s communities are still facing the challenge of making this process work to reform a historically unaccountable institution that facilitates the privatized concentration of wealth. The same decade marked the beginning of new inter-watershed engineering projects based on distributions established by river compacts. New Mexico’s allotment of the Upper Colorado River is pumped through the San Juan-Chama Project and divided mostly between the City of Albuquerque and the MRGCD, with small shares distributed among other entities. During the same time period in which the SJCP was built, metropolitan water projects in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Tucson built hydraulic infrastructures to quench the thirst of their urban growth.
Less snowpack, warmer temperatures, and erratic and intense weather patterns have moved from the predictions of climate modelers to the empirical data of the present. We are in the midst of one of the harshest droughts in the region’s history according to U.S. climate records. The MRGCD has alerted irrigators that they will be curtailed months before the end of the growing season, leaving many unsure of what this year’s labors will yield. It remains to be seen exactly how these curtailments will work out and how many lawsuits will be mounted by interested parties. In the meantime, it is likely that the District’s higher-ups will continue unaccountable practices of ensuring that large-scale commercial operators receive whatever it is they desire while small-scale operations are largely ignored. It is important to note that this is not due to the ethos of the Conservancy ditchriders, the “mayordomos” of the system. Rather, it is a semi-official policy dictated by leaders who have little in common with those in the valley most marginalized by current economic and political conditions, including employees of the District itself.
The urgency of reforming this institution is driven by these pressures and continued unsustainable urban development. Legal challenges to the District are very difficult because of the crushing weight of precedent established in legal statutes and state Supreme Court cases. While the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does outline principles that can be used by the Pueblos to work against the injustices of the U.S. legal system that buttress the MRGCD’s distributional authority, it is a non-binding resolution and the U.S. continues to not play well with others in the arenas of international law. Organizing around District elections, community based planning efforts, legislative policy, and politicizing the settler-colonial abrogation of international treaties are potentially more productive approaches to achieving substantive change than the colonial language games of domestic U.S. courtroom litigation.