Victor Marshall, a lawyer representing San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association, filed a lawsuit Friday against John D’Antonio, the state engineer, and his office.
The water users requested any communications to and from D’Antonio pertaining to the Navajo Water Rights Settlement and the Northwestern New Mexico Rural Water Projects Act.
The group alleges the office provided a 2-foot stack of papers that contained few records prior to April 19, 2005, when New Mexico and the Navajo Nation signed the Navajo Water Rights Settlement, under former Gov. Bill Richardson.
“This is pretty disturbing,” Marshall said. “The Richardson administration tries to sign away one-third of New Mexico’s surface water and the records are missing? That ought to set off alarm bells.”
The Office of the State Engineer said it complied with the records request.
“We believe we fully complied with the request,” said Karen Stangl, a spokeswoman for the state engineer. “The records requested were turned over and, frankly, we don’t know why (Marshall) filed a lawsuit.”
The water users association is seeking an order compelling the state engineer to produce all the records described in the request and compensation for damages and attorney’s fees, according to the lawsuit.
San Juan River Water Users Association is a group of about 15,000 county residents who divert water from San Juan County rivers for irrigation. Association members farm about 35,000 acres.
The group is outspoken against the Navajo Nation Water Rights Settlement.
The settlement gives the Nation the right to divert from the San Juan River more than 600,000 acre-feet of water per year. Much of that water would be used for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, which has the right to divert about 500,000 acre-feet to irrigate 110,000 acres on Navajo land, according to the settlement.
At public meetings in San Juan County this summer, officials from the state engineer’s office and the Navajo Nation said the water rights settlement ended decades of water rights negotiations between the Nation and the state.
The officials said the Nation gave up about one-third of its water rights in the San Juan River Basin in exchange for state funds to build a water pipeline that takes water south from San Juan County to Gallup.
A primary reason the water users association filed a records request is that it believes the Nation will try to sell to out-of-state entities the water it receives as part of the settlement. Marshall said the association believes exporting water out of the state was negotiated between the state and the tribe prior to signing the settlement, but no record of those negotiations were made available.
D’Antonio repeatedly said in interviews and in an editorial article published in several newspapers across the state this summer that the Nation cannot sell New Mexico Water out of state without approval from the state engineer.
Marshal argued that D’Antonio will not be able to enforce that rule.
“Can New Mexico stop the Navajo Nation from selling water? It is maybe the essential issue here,” he said. “It is reasonable to assume that issue was negotiated.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services