In July 1975, Senator Jim Abourezk called me into his office and informed me that I had to leave. “Bob, you just can’t grease the skids anymore,” he said ruefully. “You went way beyond my headlights. But you can stay for a while to look for another job.”
The last straw was my relentless effort to block four large coal gasification projects in New Mexico. Promoted as the centerpiece of “Project Independence,” the project was a response by the Nixon and Ford administrations to the 1973 oil embargo. It had the backing of several large energy corporations, the New Mexico delegation, as well as Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA), the powerful Chairman of the Senate Interior Committee.
Coal gasification is a thermo-chemical process in which the gasifier’s heat and pressure break down coal into its chemical constituents. The resulting “syngas” is comprised primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and occasionally other gaseous compounds. Originally deployed by the Nazis, coal gasification held the promise of fueling electrical power plants.
The problem was that an enormous amount of water had to be drawn from the San Juan River in the Upper Colorado Basin to operate the plants. The amount of water being sought for coal gasification plants built and operated by the WESCO consortium would consume more than 40 percent of the available supply in the Basin.
Water for the plants required approval by the Secretary of Interior, who turned a blind eye to the fact that the water rights of Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Jicarilla Apache, and Southern Ute tribes would be diminished, if not taken away outright.
I had the great fortune of working for Abourezk, a U.S. Senator who was dedicated to promoting the rights of Indian peoples. This made his office a magnet for tribal activists and some of the nation’s greatest experts in Indian law. Several champions of Indian rights came through our office, such as Grace Thorpe, then an intern from Antioch Law School. I worked under the watchful eye of Sherwin Broadhead, who spent many years championing American Indian sovereignty and advocating for social justice.
Tribal representatives fighting the theft of their water suggested that I contact William H. Veeder, who they described as “the dean of Indian water rights law” in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Veeder was revered among the Indian tribes. Even the militant activists from the American Indian Movement, who took over the Interior Department Building in early November of 1972, made a point of leaving his office undisturbed out of respect.
Bill Veeder was a small, bald, cherubic man with very thick glasses. Sherwin Broadhead described his manner of speaking as “what calligraphy would sound like.” Bill attended Catholic mass every morning and it was his deeply held religious belief “to be on the side of the angels” as a legal advocate for Indian water rights. His courtroom brilliance gained him many friends among the tribes — and enemies among the developers in the west. By the time I met him, his reputation for winning some of the most contentious legal battles led his superiors to ban him from traveling to meet with tribal officials at their reservations.
Bill laid out in great detail the trickery behind how the water for the coal gasification plants would be taken from the tribes. The key points he made was that the Interior Department, which was poised to approve the water for the projects, was deliberately under-building the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, a major treaty obligation that was a condition for the Navajos to relinquish their land and live on a reservation.
The water supply numbers were also being manipulated by assuming that more than 90 percent of the water flowing through this open ditch irrigation project would return to the San Juan River. What was conveniently side-stepped was that a significant amount of water would be lost from evaporation and spills because it was in a desert. It was a well-known fact that the upper Colorado didn’t physically have enough water to support the claims made for its use.
As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Jim Abourezk intervened at my urging to block the permits for the plants before the Federal Power Commission and also agreed with the great legal and technical hand of Bill Veeder to stop this water grab.
At a Congressional hearing I helped organize in June 1975, Senator Abourezk called for legislation imposing a moratorium on water allocations from the San Juan River until the Interior Department ensured Indian tribes’ rights to all the water they can reasonably use under a 1908 Supreme Court decision known as the “Winters Doctrine.” Indian reservations held “paramount” rights under this decision to all the water that flowed through their lands.
The gasification projects were terminated in 1978. However, my efforts to protect Indian water rights from these plants also hastened my departure from my Senate job — not only because of my contentious fights with the staff of the Senate Interior Committee, but also the trouble I got my boss in with the powerful Congressional New Mexico delegation, which controlled the purse strings of federal funds to Western states.
Despite being fired, Jim Abourezk and I remained friends.