By KAY MATTHEWS
It was just a matter of time. A week after three New Mexico state legislators filed suit against the Office of the State Engineer (OSE) over the Navajo Water Rights Settlement (see La Jicarita article) 190 objectors to the Aamodt Settlement (of a total of approximately 790 well owners who filed objections by the April 7 deadline) filed suit in U.S. District Court against that the proposed settlement in the Pojoaque Valley.
This Aamodt lawsuit, filed by Albuquerque Attorney A. Blair Dunn, raises the threshold issue, as does the Navajo lawsuit, that the state of New Mexico entered into the settlement agreement without approval of the state legislature. Both lawsuits cite a NM Supreme Court ruling in a case regarding former Governor Gary Johnson’s signing off on a gaming agreement with Pojoaque Pueblo, Clark v. Johnson, that only the legislature, not any other government body— executive, judicial, or administrative— has the authority to bind the State into compacts and agreements.
The second threshold issue, “Lack of Proper Service,” refers to the fact that over 30 percent of the 6, 000 notices sent out to the parties in the Aamodt adjudication (they are referred to as “Defendants”, or those who are claiming water rights in the adjudication) were returned to the OSE as “undeliverable.” Some Defendants in the adjudication have consistently claimed that the OSE records regarding water rights holders in the Pojoaque Basin are inadequate (not only regarding names and addresses but where wells are located) and that the agency was reluctant to spend the money to make sure every potential Defendant was notified of the settlement. The lawsuit says that the state “should use more diligence in locating the remaining Defendants and serving them via first-class or certified mail with notice of their proposed settlement agreement.”
The third threshold issue was a surprise: “the appearance of a conflict of interest between Judge Martha Vázquez [the district judge hearing the adjudication and settlement] and settling party of Santa Fe and Bureau of Reclamation.” This refers to the fact that Judge Vasquez is married to Joseph Maestas who was elected to the Santa Fe City Council in March and is a manager at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). The city of Santa Fe is a party to the settlement and the BOR is charged with promulgating the environmental impact statement for the water delivery system. The suit asks that “this Court disclose any conflicts it may have with regards to this matter, as well as afford an opportunity to all of the parties to vet and object any potential conflicts that may or may not exist between Judge Vázquez and the Settling Party City of Santa Fe.”
As we have reported extensively in La Jicarita, most of the opposition to the Aamodt settlement revolves around the water delivery system, which many non-pueblo residents didn’t want in the first place, and who had to decide if they would voluntarily give up their wells and hook up to the system. Another longstanding concern is the amount of water the settlement requires to fulfill its obligation to the pueblos: The County of Santa Fe and the Department of the Interior must soon file applications, or amend the existing 1999 application still on file, to transfer 1,700 acre feet of water rights from Top of the World Farms in northern Taos County.