Aamodt Settlement Update: Caught Up in Easement Disputes

By KAY MATTHEWS

The saga of the Aamodt Adjudication Settlement continues. After years of stagnation in district court and the approval of the controversial Aamodt Settlement Agreement in 2010, a new blip in the road was recently erected by the Santa Fe County Commission. The commissioners passed a resolution holding back county funding for the Regional Water Delivery System, an integral part of the settlement agreement, until the county and the four pueblos that are parties to the settlement—Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Tesuque, and Nambe—resolve current road easement disputes.

The resolution was in response to the Bureau of Indian Affair’s (BIA) declaration that Santa Fe County roads within the exterior boundaries of the Pueblo of San Ildefonso were in trespass. According to the resolution, this declaration was “without due consideration of the Pueblo Lands Act, the proceedings of the Pueblo Lands Board, subsequent agreements between San Ildefonso and the County, or the history surrounding San Ildefonso.” The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 fixed title to both pueblo and non-pueblo members and the Pueblo Lands Board recognized that San Ildefonso’s lands were “burdened by easements,” some of which are now designated county roads.

According to the county this dispute—as well as easements involving the other pueblos—have resulted in lenders being reluctant to issue mortgage and construction loans to county residents whose properties are accessed through these easements, and the subsequent devaluation of property.

Also in response to the BIA’s declaration, Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water, and Rights (NNM Protects), a Pojoaque Valley-based non-profit organization, filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior in July 2015 on behalf of 400 members, citing that the Pueblo Lands Act as well as the Mining Act of 1866 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo protect their rights of way. Many members of NNM Protects are defendants in the Aamodt adjudication and among the 700 water rights owners who have objected to the settlement.

Before issuing the resolution the county had been involved in negotiations with San Ildefonso but those talks quickly broke down. The Pueblo wanted to limit any agreement to the status of several county roads in El Rancho while the county’s position was that any agreement must include a “global” solution that addresses all county roads within the Pueblo’s exterior boundary.

The Valley Daily Post, a new publication based in Española, covered the county’s action in its August 27 issue and reporter Tarin Nix wrote about the underlying tension of “Native versus Non-Native” that permeates not only the easement controversy but the Aamodt Settlement as well. La Jicarita recently met with several members of NNM Protects to talk about the Aamodt Settlement and the perception that the two communities are pitted against each other. Of mixed ancestry themselves, both Beverly Duran-Cash and Heather Nordquist expressed dismay that because they are opposed to the settlement their opposition is seen as anti-Native rather than as a political position. As La Jicarita has reported for many years, opposition to the settlement focuses on issues of water management and movement in an environment increasingly affected by drought and climate change; who is and who isn’t at the table when these adjudication settlements are made; and the financial and power structures that ultimately benefit from water development.

Nordquist specifically laid out the group’s opposition to the settlement: “It is so much easier to dismiss concerns about the Aamodt Settlement implementation as racist than to admit the serious issues that exist with the environmental and financial implications of its implementation. The financial investment in the Regional Water System is substantial, the environmental impact statement has yet to be completed, and the status of the rights of way for the distribution system are unknown. When residents were asked to accept the terms of the Settlement Agreement or object to them in April, 2014, they were also asked to elect whether they would voluntarily stop using their well and hook to the system. At this point in time the operating agreement was not in place, the joint powers agreement determining who would run the water system was unknown, and the water master rules to enforce the terms of the settlement had not even been drafted. As a result, only 120 of the 2,500 well owners in the Valley signed up for the RWS. More than a year and a half later, most of those questions still remain. Only now, these same water rights holders are facing serious issues with the value of their homes due to Pueblo claims of trespass on County roads. How many would sign up for the RWS today? I’m betting that only a handful of people would feel comfortable enough with the terms of this Settlement implementation today to even consider it. How can you run a water utility without customers?”

If the county and pueblos don’t reach an agreement on the easement issue the county could sue, further holding up the $23 million county payment (this figure fluctuates) on the Aamodt Settlement. A final decree must be issued by 2017 that all conditions of the settlement have been met. It’s quite ironic that the power structure that will ultimately run the Regional Water Delivery System—Santa Fe County—is now threatening to withhold the funds to construct that system. But there have been many twists and turns in the Aamodt’s long life: an initial finding of pueblo water rights that limits them to the time of the Pueblo Lands Act; a 100 degree turn around on requiring non-Pueblo residents to assign their domestic water rights to the county; the unfeasibility of the proposed Aquifer Storage and Recovery System to store water for the delivery system; and the outstanding protests against the Top of the World water rights transfer from Taos County necessary to meet the future needs of the pueblos. We’ll see what else comes down the pipe (and it may not be water) in the two years until deadline.

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3 comments

  1. Dear Kaye, I thank you very much for your diligence and knowledge you have and share around these complex and interwoven water issues. Thank you for presenting your case in the recent court like gathering in Taos. This is courageous and took a lot a skill. . .it is an excellent model for being a very strong individual. Are there similar ways an individual can still protest the decisions?
    Sincerely, Mary

  2. Yes, Kaye, thank you for finally reporting the truth of the challenges of Aamodt that other media will not print. We are ever grateful that you are here to report the truth.
    I hope you don’t mind me jumping in, but I thought I could point Mary to a few resources. Mary, the Joint Powers Agreement between Santa Fe County and the four pueblos is still being negotiated. Initially, the draft agreement had a Board consisting of 5 members, one from each tribe and one from Santa Fe County. Since non-Native residents could be up to 80%+ of the water customers, we have asked the County to reconsider, and they have a new draft with a nine member board. You can keep your eye on this document at:
    http://www.santafecountynm.gov/public_works/utilities/aamodt
    They have at least been soliciting public comment on this document.
    The OSE also (reluctantly) provided our organization drafts of the Water Master Rules, which will determine how the Settlement is enforced. It is far from complete, and the State Engineer doesn’t seem to be interested in what the public has to say about it.
    I can only speak for myself and our organization in saying that the fight is not over. In addition to $23M needed from the County, the State of New Mexico is on the hook for $75M, which will need to be squeezed out of the state budgets in the next two years. We will be there to voice our concerns if some of these outstanding issues are not solved.
    I am not sure where you are located, but EVERY New Mexican should be concerned that a huge financial investment is planned for this water system that practically none of the non-Native residents support due to its various problems. If you wish to contact me, feel free.
    Heather Nordquist, NNM Protects, Executive Vice-President

  3. Dear Kay, Thank you for all you do to protect our Water of Life and keep us informed. Am I the only person that sees a pattern of water “relocation” (theft), limited access to clean water, water pollution and both US government and tribal government corruption or collusion? Today’s Censored News posts – while speaking about Navajo water rights ~ clearly expose the motives. There will be no Miracles, when the water is gone, sold, and polluted. http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2015/11/peter-macdonald-letter-navajo-water.html and http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2015/11/us-theft-of-water-rights-and.html

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