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Santa Fe County water rights suit reaches milestone after 51 years

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A water-rights lawsuit that is said to be the nation’s longest-running piece of litigation reached a crucial milestone here Friday, with a judge’s final decree that added only five pages to the thousands upon thousands generated since the proceedings known as the “Aamodt Case” started in 1966.

In what U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson and lawyers called a momentous occasion, the judge’s decree adjudicates water rights among four Indian pueblos and non-Indian residents in northern Santa Fe County.

A settlement reached among various parties and approved by Congress in 2010 calls for creation of a regional water system in the Pojoaque Basin and sets out rules for well owners to either tie into the system or continue using their wells.

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In dry legal language, Johnson’s decree took note of the time spent on the case:

“The Complaint in the above captioned case (commonly referred to as the ‘Aamodt Case’) was filed on April 20, 1966. The Aamodt Case has been an active case in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico for more than fifty-one years. Accordingly, there is no reason for delay of the entry of this Final Judgement… .”

R. Lee Aamodt was a lead party in the original filing.

Still, “final” in this case may not really be final.

Johnson’s decree comes in well under a Sept. 15 federal government deadline for the action – federal money is expected to pay most of the 2010 settlement’s costs – and takes the case out of the New Mexico federal district court where it has been contested for five decades.

But parties could still appeal to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Non-Indian residents have taken the case to the appeals court before.

Lawyers with the Western Agriculture, Resource and Business Advocates firm in Albuquerque, which represents dozens of people who objected to the settlement agreed to by big players such as Santa Fe County and Pojoaque, Tesuque, Nambé and San Ildefonso pueblos, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. In the 1980s, a judge gave the four pueblos priority claims as the first users of the basin’s water.

Others celebrated the significance of the decree.

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“For people to come together for a resolution and reach a settlement after 51 years is truly monumental,” said Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller.

The Office of the State Engineer released a statement saying the decree “brings certainty to Pueblo and non-Pueblo rights in the valley, and facilitates their administration by the State Engineer.”

Arianne Singer, a lawyer for the state, said there had been “difficult times” in the case as uncertain law was sorted out. “We worked together with all the other major players and other governments to solve a problem and came up a solution that works for everybody,” she said. “It really feels good.”

Deadline and funding

The federal government has set a 2024 deadline for substantial completion of the $260 million regional water system, which will use water diverted from the Rio Grande. Failure to meet the deadline would render Judge Johnson’s decree and the 2010 settlements void.

As part of the 2010 settlement, President Barack Obama signed legislation providing $82 million in immediate funding, some of which is being used by the Bureau of Reclamation for the water system design. Congress authorized another $92.5 million in future funding subject to approval.

The state is to provide about $72 million under the agreement, about $15 million of which has already been paid. The rest is subject to appropriation.

Santa Fe County is obligated to put up $11.7 million, but that doesn’t include an estimated $9 million it will pay after the system is substantially complete to bring water to county residents who elect to hook up with the system.

Meanwhile, county funding has been tied up in a separate dispute with pueblos that has continued for years and was the subject of closed meetings at the state Capitol just this week.

The County Commission two years ago voted to withhold its Aamodt water system money until resolution of a fight that started when San Ildefonso Pueblo claimed that the county was trespassing through its use of County Road 84 and several others that branch off it.

Santa Fe County argued it owns the roads and has maintained them. It pointed to the Pueblos Land Act and a 1989 agreement between the county and pueblo as proof of county ownership.

Non-Indian residents say the dispute, which has since extended to other area pueblos, has clouded their ownership titles and lowered property values, with access to their homes in doubt.

The County Commission earlier this week announced that it would be in the closed meetings Thursday and Friday with pueblo officials and representatives of federal agencies – but not with opponents to the Aamodt settlement.

The county cited two exceptions to New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act it says allows the commission to meet behind closed doors: discussions of threatened or pending litigation and for discussion of purchase, acquisition and disposal or real estate or water rights.

Reportedly, the talks may include the county acquiring property that is in dispute in the roads fight.

State Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Democrat who represents much of the area in question, said in a news release he was asked to leave when he tried to sit in on the meeting Thursday.

“Their exclusion is odd, given the discussion centered around the Aamodt Settlement Agreement, and specifically the roads rights-of-way issues involving the very land owners not invited to the meeting,” said Trujillo.

“I was there to represent the people of my district. Many of my constituents feel that once again they do not have proper representation as the Feds have continued to make these instrumental decisions behind closed doors that negatively affect the members of my community. At the very least, I should have been allowed to listen so that I could report back to them in an informed manner.”

The county provided this response Friday afternoon: “The meetings were closed to the public, as allowed by law, so as to allow for confidential discussions to resolve the issues of County roads within the exterior boundary of the Pueblos. The County could not selectively choose to allow members of the public, such as Representative Trujillo, to attend.”


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