DENVER -- They've been fighting over water in New Mexico as long as there has been a New Mexico.

But this water ruckus has a new twist to it. Native American tribes want their sacred river, the mighty Rio Grande, to be clean. It's not, and no one can remember the last time it was.

No matter, the tribes say. They want the cities along the river to clean up the Rio Grande upstream from their land, and they've got the Environmental Protection Agency and a district court ruling in their corner.

Today, the city of Albuquerque plans to file an appeal in the 10th District Court of Appeals in Denver. The appeal may take up to a year, and city officials promise to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Albuquerque is in no hurry. City engineers estimate that a court-ordered cleanup could cost from $60 million to $250 million, depending on the exact water-quality standard that is imposed. City officials say the higher figure would raise the average citizen's $25 monthly water bill by 40%, although they also say the city would turn to bonds for some of the cost.

Back in 1987 Congress decided that Native American tribes, as sovereign states, could set their own environmental standards. But the Isleta Pueblo is the first tribe to set tougher standards than the EPA, so its victory last month in City of Albuquerque v. Environmental Protection Agency has analysts predicting an expensive precedent for state and city governments.

"The crux of this is you could end up with several types of EPA regulations in one state due to the difference in water regulations by Native American tribes," said Marcy Block, Southwest analyst for Moody's Investor Service.

Block said it is "most likely" that Albuquerque will lose its case and have to pay for the cleanup. She and other Moody's officials would not speculate on what effect that could have on Albuquerque's joint water and sewer revenue bonds, which are A1.

Joe Olguin, the lieutenant governor of the Isleta Pueblo, declined comment for this article.

The Rio Grande's headwaters are in southern Colorado near Wolf Creek Pass. It gathers tributaries and winds its way through northern New Mexico, including the famous Taos Box canyon, a popular stretch for white-water rafters. The river slows and flattens in the desert below Santa Fe, passing through the territory of several Native American tribes.

One of these is the Pueblo of Sandia, located north of Albuquerque and just south of the small ranching town of Bernalillo, which has received EPA approval for its own tough water standards. The Pueblo of San Juan, located north of Bernalillo, has applied to the agency for approval.

The Rio Grande collects pollutants from pesticides as it passes the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the huge Juarez-El Paso industrial complex. Nonetheless, Americans and Mexicans alike continue to splash in the river above and below El Paso as it travels to the Gulf of Mexico, where it completes its 1,900-mile journey.

In December 1992, the EPA approved the Isleta Pueblo's water standards, which are far more stringent than federal guidelines. With its lands just five miles downstream from the city's treatment plant, the pueblo wants river water to be potable so its people can perform such religious ceremonies as immersing the blessed.

On Oct. 21, U.S. District Court Judge Edwin L. Mechem said the pueblo had the right to set the standards. and followed the proper federal procedures in doing so. But an Albuquerque official argues that the standards are blatantly unreasonable.

"They are calling for ridiculous and absurd standards," said Robert Gurule, director of public works for Albuquerque. "The arsenic standards are 1,000 times more stringent than the federal safe drinking level."

Mechem did echo such charges in his judgment, writing that "the city raises some very troubling issues" in discussing the water standards.

"For example, the Pueblo's arsenic standard for the Rio Grande is three orders of magnitude [1,000 times] more stringent than the federal safe drinking water standard and is below the concentration that can be accurately measured by current laboratory equipment," Mechem wrote.

He went on to write that arsenic naturally occurs in Albuquerque's ground water at high levels and is not discharged by industrial polluters. And if pure water flows out of the city's plant, it is likely that arsenic levels would remain high.

It has been suggested that the pueblos want to use the Rio Grande suit as a lever to extract other benefits from the federal, state, or city government, but Gurule doesn't agree. "I think they just want clean water," he said.

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