SANTA FE – Opponents of a water-rights settlement between the state and four pueblos in northern Santa Fe County are raising new legal issues, including that federal Judge Martha Vazquez may have a conflict of interest in the decades-old case and that the Legislature must approve the settlement.
Vazquez, who has overseen the Aamodt water-rights case the past three years, is married to Joseph Maestas, who was elected to the Santa Fe City Council in March. The city of Santa Fe is a party in the case, which dates from the 1960s.
A filing last week by opponents of the settlement doesn’t specifically mention the spousal relationship but “respectfully” asked that the judge disclose any conflicts with Santa Fe and for an opportunity for all parties “to vet and object (to) any potential conflicts,” so that the issue “is not later called into question.”
The filing, by attorney A. Blair Dunn of Albuquerque, also raises the bigger issue of whether the Office of the State Engineer can legally enter into the settlement with the pueblos of Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque.
Dunn argues that the proposed settlement between the state and pueblos violates the separation of powers spelled out in the state constitution. He cites a state Supreme Court decision in a 1995 case involving gambling compacts with tribes, which determined that then-Gov. Gary Johnson couldn’t enter into the gaming compacts with sovereign tribes without legislative approval.
Blair maintains it’s clear from the high court decision that “only the New Mexico legislature, and not any other New Mexico government body, be it executive, judicial or administrative, has the authority to bind the State into compacts and agreements.” The same issue was recently raised in a proposed settlement involving Navajo water rights.
A settlement in the Aamodt case – named after an original party in the litigation – would determine water rights for the pueblos, acequias and more than 2,000 wells.
It was reached with state, local and federal approvals in 2012, but about 790 well owners filed objections by an April 7 deadline. Dunn represents 190 of the objectors. More than 300 have accepted the settlement.
A big piece of the settlement calls for a Rio Grande river diversion at San Ildefonso and a water treatment plant for a regional water system. Non-Indian well owners can connect to the Santa Fe County water system, keep their wells and limit water use, or use wells with a lesser reduction of water use, but with hookup to the county system whenever the property is transferred to a new owner.
Opponents are concerned about the costs of the regional water system and hooking up to it, loss of water rights and how much water the pueblos can use.
Dunn’s May 21 filing argues that a third legal issue that should be resolved before the case proceeds is ensuring that all of those affected by the settlement have received proper notice.
The state has acknowledged that more than 30 percent of 6,000 notice letters sent out earlier this year were returned as undeliverable, Dunn’s filing says.
Efforts to reach staff at the state engineer’s office for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.