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Navigating the Waters of Economic Growth in Indian Country

May 6, 2024
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Veronique Richardson, a partner specializing in water rights and economic development at a small firm, serves tribal entities and tribal members exclusively. According to Veronique, "water is life." Not only is it significant as a natural resource, but it's significant culturally in Indian country. She helps tribal governments and their people navigate a deliberate balance between economic growth and preserving natural resources for future generations. Veronique discusses the challenges and complexities of representing tribes in water rights settlements, emphasizing the importance of advocacy, policy-making, and coalition-building. Additionally, she explains her role in economic development projects, including her role in bringing a Tesla dealership to tribal land. Veronique is a 2011 graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Transcript

Katya Valasek:

We're joined today by Veronique Richardson, a partner at a small firm who specializes in water rights and economic development contracts. The overlap between water rights and economic development is significant, to say the least. Like energy, you can't have economic development without water. Since all of your clients are tribal entities, individuals, and governments in deserts, it's all the more important. But before we get into your practice, I want to talk about your firm where you recently became partner.

Veronique Richardson:

The issues each client faces is unique to their situation and circumstances. It may be a small issue to us, and nationally and globally, but to them it could be the world. But speaking to some of the larger cases we've had here, we've been able to assist clients achieve return of aboriginal title to lands that were taken out of their possession, and that's a huge deal for Indian country. I think we hear the term “land back” a lot. To actually be able to have a hand in helping a tribe get land back is just an amazing venture that we have. It's exciting for us, but it's very impactful spiritually, traditionally, culturally for our clients to have that. And so, you know, by the law, it's fun for us because this is what we're trained to do, but the impact is so much bigger than words on paper to our clients.

Katya Valasek:

Because you're working within a tribe, the way you build your book of business is different than a traditional attorney who may be advertising in a lot of different ways and meeting people through a variety of different sources.

Veronique Richardson:

Yes, absolutely, you're very right. The lay of the land is very different for attorneys in Indian law. A lot of clients are brought on by word of mouth, and that's just clients relaying to other individuals or other tribal governments of the work that we do and the capabilities that we have, the resources we have. A lot of it also comes from other attorneys who may be working with other clients and then something arises in Indian country that they think our firm can handle and help with. So yeah, it's definitely not the same as your traditional advertising. We don't have commercials and we don't usually post that we're looking for certain clients. They usually come to us. We've been pretty lucky to have a consistent group of clients who have come to us over the years.

Katya Valasek:

So you are a member of the Laguna Pueblo, one of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, and many of the members of your firm are tribal members. Do you think that's important to your clients?

Veronique Richardson:

Absolutely, I think having, one, a firm that is 100% Native American owned and we strive to obtain attorneys who are from tribal communities helps our work and helps our clients as well. We're not all the same, I don't want to feed into that stereotype. We are all different and come from different places in the US. But, for the most part, we have some shared values and can really understand our clients' background. We can understand the importance of coming from oral historical communities where oral tradition is predominant. And so to have that type of background is really special, not just for us as lawyers, but also to our clients.

Katya Valasek:

Even the web domain for your law firm is indiancountrylaw.com. So it seems it's a way to start to build that trust for people coming to you, whether their issue is, as you said, a small one to you, but the world to them.

Veronique Richardson:

Absolutely. It's very important to us.

Katya Valasek:

Half of your time is spent on water with the other half on economic development contracts. And we'll talk specifically about your role in bringing a new Tesla facility to tribal land later. But first, I want to focus on the work you do with water law. I know that this may seem like a basic question, but what does water represent to the pueblos of New Mexico?

Veronique Richardson:

We often hear, especially in the desert and in New Mexico, water is life. It's the bloodline to many of our traditional Pueblos and tribes in New Mexico. And it is quite significant for cultural and traditional practices here. And so without that resource, which is one of the most important resources to our culture and tradition. You know, it's detrimental to the tribes to not have access or quality or supply for that resource.

Katya Valasek:

So basically then, water rights are about delivery and storage of water for commercial, residential, and public use.

Veronique Richardson:

Well, water rights would be the actual property right and quantified to a certain extent. That could mean municipal, that could be livestock, that could be irrigation, it could be some sort of environmental purpose use. So with it comes a lot of different uses of that water right.

Katya Valasek:

So there's lots of competing interests between government agencies, municipalities, tribes, and other entities. Can you talk a bit about those competing interests?

Veronique Richardson:

Supply and demand is going to drive the competition for water. There's a lot of competing interests with the Pueblos who border municipalities and non-Indian communities. And in New Mexico, especially during the pandemic, we saw a huge population growth with a lot of non-residents moving here in New Mexico. And so competition for water use has skyrocketed in addition to climate change, all kinds of other factors that we're facing. And so competing interests are always something that we have to deal with here in New Mexico and on the river, but I also think that the goal is the same for a lot of water users: to have some certainty. As we see the impacts of our water levels decline and the river levels declining. The goal is really to give those interests some certainty for the future.

Katya Valasek:

So talking about certainty for the future, you represent one tribe with respect to their rights in the Rio Grande Basin. What is the range of that representation?

Veronique Richardson:

Right now I would say the focus is to get some certainty in quantifying those industrial, municipal, residential, all of their water rights, so that they can provide for their future population. And I think it's important to know a lot of our representation comes with understanding the tribal communities here in New Mexico as well. Here in New Mexico, the Pueblos have never been moved or relocated by the United States government, which we've seen with relocation in the past by the U.S. government. And so the Pueblos have been here since time immemorial, and they're not going anywhere.

And so critical here is that, as the cities and counties grow, the Pueblos are also growing, but they're not moving anytime soon. They're not going anywhere. And that certainty is absolutely critical. And so, with their conservation hat on and also trying to compete with economic interests, they are constantly trying to balance the need for this important resource and also to maintain their own communities.

Katya Valasek:

And to do that, the Pueblos are working together to try and get recognized rights beyond statutory rights.

Veronique Richardson:

Yeah, that's correct. Unique to the Pueblos here in the Rio Grande is they have statutorily recognized water rights and those are recognized by Congress up to a certain amount. And it's been critical and influential and powerful, honestly, for the six Pueblos who have those statutorily recognized rights to form a coalition in order to compete or have its interests recognized by the state of New Mexico, by the federal government, that includes the Bureau of Reclamation, that includes the US Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To have six governments on the same page as to the importance of this resource and the importance of this issue has been significant for each of the tribes who are part of the coalition.

Katya Valasek:

I want to dig in just for a second on why it's important to be recognized beyond statutory recognition.

Veronique Richardson:

It's definitely insufficient. And so that is the problem that we're running into. It's quantified specifically for the purposes of irrigation. And so only its water rights for irrigation have, and I would use this term, a minimum has been set by statute. And so the full extent of each of the Pueblo's water rights in the Rio Grande has not been quantified.

Katya Valasek:

So now we're going to dig into the hard work that you do to try and get this quantified. You are working with your tribe towards a water rights settlement, which is a complicated process. Can you talk a little bit about how you're helping navigate this process?

Veronique Richardson:

So a lot of credit goes to each of the Pueblos and tribal leadership. So they are really the drivers and set the agenda for its staff and attorneys. And so having tribal leadership give you the authorization to move forward in a way that's productive and meaningful for them is important. With their blessing and their authorization, we've been able to do a lot of work of creating a record to demonstrate either water infrastructure needs, demands on the river, what the tribal water uses and needs are, and advocate for those to the different agencies. And so having to either write to congressional delegates, writing to the U.S. Department of the Interior, writing to assistant secretaries, advocating at various local meetings, including before the Office of the State Engineer and the Rio Grande Compact Commission. A lot of communication and coordination.

Right now, the Pueblos have an operation and maintenance agreement with the local conservancy district here and there’s never enough funding from the United States to provide those services, there's never enough funding. And so really having to advocate for monies towards water infrastructure, monies toward rebuilding some of those dilapidated infrastructure and really putting, putting the infrastructure back to where it can be efficient. We're not having huge water losses and seepage issues. And so really having to advocate beforehand, before you can even start to quantify, for having updated infrastructure is kind of where we start. And getting to know all of the players involved, all of the parties involved, because it really does require a lot of agency input and a lot of coordination.

Katya Valasek:

What do you do then with their direction? Are you writing letters and citing case law and statutes or the agreements that exist? Are you leaning into some public policy components?

Veronique Richardson:

All of the above. I think that in my practice in particular, it's become a lot of meetings, you know, meeting with every single leader you could possibly think of in the state, locally and nationally. It's constantly having to bug every agency, and not let them lose sight of you because the need is there. And it's only exacerbated by time and by climate change. And so really just having to be the advocate for my client, whether it's being at every single council meeting, city council meeting, being at every Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting, knocking on the door every time they go to D.C. to meet with congressional delegation leadership. It's everything, it's all of the above.

Katya Valasek:

Where did you learn these public policy skills?

Veronique Richardson:

I think it's a learned skill over time and in our field of law, I've had to use it a lot. I've had great mentors here at the law firm and I definitely also think that semi-inherently being a tribal member myself and also you know learning from law school and just having the right resources. Really being able to hone in on those policy making skills and understanding the implications on the practical side of practicing law, you really get to see how policies either are failing or how they're succeeding. I think going into my 13th year of practice, I've been able to really gain some skills as far as policymaking goes and understanding the impacts they have and how to draft policy so that it is meaningful to our clients.

Katya Valasek:

You create this record, you submit the formal request. It took you eight years, but now you're in the assessment phase. So what does that mean?

Veronique Richardson:

The United States Department of Interior appointed a federal assessment team and that's composed of representatives from the federal agencies and the solicitor's office as well. There's some requirements that we have to meet in order to begin discussing how we could even quantify the water rights. They're assessing how feasible is this? Is this going to take us 20 years or 50 years? And really identifying who the parties could be. What are the possibility of the claims? What are the possibilities of liabilities? You really kind of have this of things that you've got to discuss before the federal assessment team makes a recommendation to appoint what would then be a negotiation team.

Katya Valasek:

And in these conversations, are you speaking on behalf of your client?

Veronique Richardson:

Yes, absolutely. As part of this assessment team, each Pueblo identified an attorney, a technical individual, as well as their leadership, so a governor or a lieutenant governor.

Katya Valasek:

And I think this is interesting because you are not adversarial. You are not in an adversarial position with these other attorneys. There really is a coalition working through this process of attorneys.

Veronique Richardson:

The common interest here exceeds the potential conflict. We all have a common goal to quantify the water rights. And what's unique in this instance is that everybody understands the cultural and traditional importance of the resource. And so we have that commonality in place. And I think it's going to be an interesting process to see how we overcome some of those competing interests, because I think that's inherent with any upstream user in the same room as a downstream user. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out in the future.

Katya Valasek:

So what's your role after the assessment phase is complete?

Veronique Richardson:

Our role then in a negotiation would be to start doing some technical examination of the extent of the water rights, coming up with some values and quantities and starting to negotiate with United States and with the state of New Mexico and trying to push the Pueblo’s agenda forward in those negotiations.

Katya Valasek:

So ultimately the options are going to be either a settlement or a lawsuit, correct?

Veronique Richardson:

I think that that's part of the assessment phase, right, is really trying to understand all the potential avenues that we could go. And I think that that's part of the conversation as well.

Katya Valasek:

I mentioned earlier that a sizable amount of your practice is economic development. Can you talk about how that complements the work you do with water law?

Veronique Richardson:

Definitely, I think both are important to my client and maintaining a healthy balance of that is a delicate dance and making sure that, one, their economic development is sustainable and maintainable in light of the decline of the natural resources that helps them run those businesses is definitely important. And I think the businesses they bring in is also important because they are trying to maintain that delicate balance. And so having the right businesses come in, attracting those businesses, and also realizing that we're working with a finite resources is definitely important. So it's nice to have that background of water when I'm dealing with some of the economic development projects that different clients bring to us. It’ss helpful because the first thing I ask is, you know, “is there water?” “Is there water that can be used and is there a healthy and environmentally sound way that they can utilize the water as well?”

Katya Valasek:

One of the recent economic development projects you worked on was to bring a Tesla car dealership to Indian country. Now this is non-water economic development, but still complicated. So set the stage for me. What made it such a complex project?

Veronique Richardson:

The dealership laws here in New Mexico don't allow for manufacturer direct sales. And so that is the Tesla model, is to have Tesla sell their own vehicles without having a separate dealership agreement in place. Tesla’s tried over the years to have New Mexico adopt a law to allow the sale of electric vehicles, specifically this direct sale model that they have in place. That has been unsuccessful for quite some time. State law does not apply on the reservation and the tribes can make their own laws and be governed by them. They finally decided to test that route. And so, while my client wasn't the first tribal facility, they were the largest tribal facility.

It was an amazing learning process. I believe both for Tesla, I won't speak for them, but I believe for them as well as for us. But we had the intersection of tribal law, New Mexico state law, as well as entering into a business lease. But I do think that having the Tesla facility approach my client definitely aligned with their values being that it was an electric vehicle company. And so I think it fit well within their values.

There were a lot of different moving parts to that. And working with Tesla's team was just simply amazing. And having to reassure them that the tribe can pass its own laws and to have them firmly believe that and buy into something that was very foreign, a process and a government that was so foreign to them, it honestly was a lot of fun. And so, what we were able to do, although we had identified a very long timeline, we had some supporters in the New Mexico legislature who sponsored a bill for the tribe. And that bill was to allow for reciprocity in the tax laws for purchasing vehicles on reservation.

You go out of state and you pay a tax on a vehicle you've purchased and you bring it back home, if you can show that you paid the tax, you won't get re -taxed. You won't be double taxed when you bring it back home. New Mexico law did not have reciprocity for paying taxes on a reservation when you purchased a car. So it wasn't unique to an electric vehicle or having Tesla come on the reservation. It was really about having some antiquated laws that had not yet included some incentives for purchasing goods on the reservation.

So that was a pretty unique issue we were able to resolve in a very short session in New Mexico with some support from specific legislators. And then on the other hand, we had to also, for the Pueblo's benefit, adopt an excise tax. So the Pueblo decided to adopt its own motor vehicle code and included in it an excise tax. And that is a steady stream of income to help specifically and directly tribal members. And so for every vehicle sold the Pueblo is able to be the recipient of that excise tax. And then on top of that, then also having the lease payments from the physical building itself is just another benefit directed at the tribe.

Katya Valasek:

I can tell you really enjoy complicated areas of law. Have you had that confidence to tackle hard issues from the start or have you gained that confidence over the course of your career?

Veronique Richardson:

Definitely gained it over the years. And I think that comes from the outstanding colleagues I have here at the firm who have given me the ability to have clients who are doing amazing work in Indian country and to feel confident in those relationships with clients. And then over time, finally being able to be like, “I was right. I did know what I was doing.” Because one, being first generation college student, first generation attorney in my family, I didn't have any direct mentors to teach me these things or to have be exposed to any of these things. Two, being a woman and being a Native American woman, I'm oftentimes the only woman or Native American woman in the room. And so I've definitely had to earn and gain this confidence over time, but I think being able to see the direct results of some of the work I've done has given me that confidence in representing and advocating for clients. So definitely did not start out with that, but learned it over time.

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