DENVER -- The city of Albuquerque., N.M., has appealed a federal court ruling requiring Albuquerque to comply with costly water standards for the Rio Grande.
The appeal was filed Tuesday in the 10th District Court of Appeals in Denver. The case pits Albuquerque against the Environmental Protection Agency, which is upholding the Isleta Pueblo's right to apply strict water standards for the city's water treatment plant located five miles upstream from the Pueblo.
Pueblo leaders want to make the Rio Grande cleaner for religious ceremonies in which people are immersed in river water, according to legal documents. The leaders also want to make the water potable and clean enough that fish caught in the river can be eaten.
In December 1992, the EPA approved the Isleta's tribe's stringent water standards, which are much stricter than the EPA's.
On Oct. 21, the U.S. District Court in New Mexico upheld the EPA's ruling that the tribe was within its rights to set the stringent water Senior U.S. District Court Judge Edwin L. Mechem said the tribe had followed the proper EPA procedures in setting the standards and that the tribe was well within its rights to do so.
Albuquerque has vowed to fight the standards to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The appeal could take up to a year to decide. The city has argued that even if its plant were to discharge distilled water, the Rio Grande water quality would be unchanged because of pollution from natural and other man-made sources.
Albuquerque is also fighting the battle on another front -- in the EPA water permit process that occurs every five years. The city is arguing before the EPA that the standards imposed by the Pueblo are unreasonable and not in compliance with the Clean Water Act of 1987. If unsuccessful with the EPA, the city can appeal separately to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Compliance with the Pueblo's standards -- which were approved by the EPA -- could cost the city between $60 million and $250 million, depending on the standard ordered by the courts.
"It's an important case. There's a lot at stake for the city financially. The city doesn't want to be required to spend an enormous amount of money for no discernable benefit," said Bruce Garber, a Santa Fe-based attorney representing Albuquerque. "The 1967 act hasn't been tested and we need the best clarification we can get from the courts."
Pueblo officials could not be reached for comment.
In a report by Moody's Investor Service, analyst Marcy Block stated that the case constitutes the first Native American nation use of broad environmental powers granted by the 1987 act.
"As a result of actions taken by the Pueblo of Isleta, approved by the EPA and confirmed by the current court decision, regions throughout the United States where there are Native American nations may also be subject to adoption of tribal water quality standards," Block wrote.
"The adoption of these standards could severely affect countless municipal water and sewer systems, although it is impossible to estimate the impact at this time. The ultimate financial effect of the new standards will be felt by the systems' users through higher charges to attain compliance," Block wrote.
Moody's did not identify other potential sites where Native American nations control bodies of water, but the rating agency did say that court proceedings could affect ratings.
As far as New Mexico goes, Block noted two other Pueblos have set stricter standards.
"The state is expected to have, at a minimum, three sets of considerably stricter water quality standards in addition to the current EPA-approved state standard. The potential difficulties for point sources in the state of New Mexico cannot be overstated: compliance costs will be substantial," Block wrote.