When Tom Daley, a 65-year-old Pueblo Indian, was growing up on a reservation near Albuquerque, most of the Indians there were farmers. Today, most are unemployed. They cannot farm because they do not have enough water for irrigation.
The Indians' water supply was taken by those who settled in New Mexico after them -- people who say they also are entitled to water from the Rio San Jose and cannot survive without it.
"We have 30 acres that we irrigate," said Bob Gottlieb, a rancher who grows alfalfa and clover for his cattle. "We need water for the cattle and ourselves. Without water in this part of the country you can't exist."
Gottlieb's lament has been echoed throughout the West, particularly in the arid Southwest, as more people and industries use the region's most precious resource: water.
Increasingly, the question of who has right to the water -- and how much of it -- is left to the courts to decide. There are 60 water-rights adjudication cases in courts in the West, according to J. Hank Meshorer of the Justice Department's land and resources division -- more than were filed during the first 60 years of this century.
Although the increase in such cases is due partly to the rapid population growth in the West after World War II, it is also due to questions about the extent of the Indians' water rights, ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court to include the right to have as much water as necessary to "fulfill the purposes of the reservation," even if the Indians have not used that amount continuously.
That right, among others, has pitted Indians against non-Indians, especially in areas such as New Mexico and Arizona. Indians worry that white judges will bend the rules, leaving them without the amount of water they have used historically. Non-Indians fear that the Indians will take at least some water away from them. Some non-Indians also tend to become resentful of the federal government, since the government brings and defends Indians' water-rights suits as trustee for Indian lands.
"I'm a taxpayer, paying a sizable amount of taxes. And my tax money is being used to wage suit against me and my cohorts on behalf of the Indians," said Ted Allen, co-owner of a woodwork-supply business and farm land in Cibola County, N.M., and one of 1,500 defendants in the Pueblo Indians' case, U.S. v. Bluewater Toltec Irrigation District.
But the issue of taxpayer money pales beside the real issue in this case and another water-rights case in New Mexico: whether there is enough water to satisfy everyone's claims.
Allen's lawyer, Jay Mason, said, "If the Indians get as much water as they say they're entitled to under the Winters doctrine of the Supreme Court , there won't be water left for anyone else. It borders on insanity."
Mason bases his assertion on a report by the Pueblo Indians showing that they historically used 16,000 acre-feet of water each year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water, 43,560 cubic feet, it would take to cover an acre to a depth of 1 foot.) Peter White of the New Mexico State Engineer Office says it is "very likely" that the Indians are asserting rights to more water than exists.
But a Justice Department spokesman said that such estimates are premature and that it will be impossible to say exactly how much water the Indians are claiming until a hydrological study is completed next year. After the United States claims that the reservation is entitled to a certain amount of water, a judge must decide whether the government can prove its claim and whether the Indians would put the water to "beneficial use."
That use might not be just farming. Les Taylor, a private attorney for one of the two Pueblo tribes in the suit, says the Pueblo Laguna tribe would like to develop an industry on the reservation. "But they need a water supply to do it," he said. "Without water it's incredibly frustrating for them."
Many of the 9,500 Pueblo Indians are unemployed; others commute 45 miles to jobs in Albuquerque.
In an attempt to keep the water for themselves, many of the farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and the city of Grants, N.M., have fought the case with a standard tactic: bringing their own suit against the federal government. That case is now in state court in New Mexico. Some lawyers for the non-Indians think that the state-elected judges will give their clients a more sympathetic hearing than they might receive in federal court, where the U.S. government brought its suit.
The farmers and ranchers also are claiming that the Pueblo Indians, unlike other Indians, were not intended by Congress to live on reservations and that they, therefore, are not entitled to the water they claim.
Allen, the businessman and farmer, says he resents that the courts have given Indians the right to have as much water as necessary to "fulfill the purposes of their reservation."
"I don't have much sympathy for the causes voiced by our Native Americans," Allen said. "I think they need to get in the mainstream of American life and stop having special privileges. For me to pay for what may have been done to them a hundred years ago is ridiculous."
Responding to such arguments, Indian lawyer Les Taylor says, "A lot of people around here say, 'I wish those Indians would get off their duffs and stop sitting on Uncle Sam for a handout.' But they're not giving the Indians the bare necessities that will allow them to be self-supporting. And water is a bare necessity."