By KAY MATTHEWS
In March of this year the Society of Professional Journalists presented the Black Hole Award to the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), a division of the Office of the State Engineer (OSE), for its “outright contempt of the public’s right to know.” Freelance journalist Laura Paskus nominated the agency because of its increasing secrecy during her 15 years covering it, particularly after its approval of the Gila River Diversion and its actions against Norm Gaume, former head of the ISC, for exposing the project’s many flaws.
I would extend that award to include its parent, the OSE. A week ago I stood before the OSE attorneys and bureaucrats responsible for the promulgation of the Aamodt Adjudication Settlement, at its last public meeting before the settlement becomes final on September 15, and asked a question. The hearing examiner who was chairing the meeting told me the meeting was for public comment and that the attorneys weren’t there to answer questions. I persisted (sound familiar?) and finally he said he would pass my question along to the appropriate party and have someone get back to me. Of course, a week later, no one from the OSE has contacted me.
What was my question? It was the same one I asked Santa Fe County attorney John Utton (who had no answer) and tried to ask OSE attorney Arianne Singer, who never returned my call: How can the parties to the settlement claim that it will meet the September 15, 2017 deadline for completion when there is extant litigation against it—a protest by Taos County over the transfer of 1,752 acre feet of water from Top of the World (TOW) Farm? This water is slated for the regional water system that will supply the pueblo and non-pueblo water users in the Pojoaque Valley.
The Settlement Act states that water rights have to have been “acquired and entered into appropriate contracts” and “permits have been issued by the New Mexico State Engineer to the Regional Water Authority” and that “the permits shall be free of any condition that materially adversely affects the ability of the Pueblos or the Regional Water Authority to divert or use the Pueblo water supply . . . .” The Aamodt Final Decree was signed on July 14 before the State Engineer rendered an opinion on Taos County’s protest of the TOW water rights. The State Engineer denied the protest on July 18. Taos County filed a notice of appeal on August 16, meaning the case will be heard in district court. How can the parties to the settlement claim that all permits are “free of conditions” when there is an outstanding lawsuit against the movement of these water rights pending in court?
There is another condition that must be met by September 15: that federal, state, and county funding be appropriated for implementation of the regional water system. In 2015 the Santa Fe County Commission passed Resolution 2015-25, which requires that the legal status of the access and easement rights on county roads that fall within the exterior boundaries of the four pueblos involved in the Aamodt Settlement—Tesuque, Nambe, Pojoaque, and San Ildefonso—be resolved before the commission appropriates funding for the regional water system. Another condition, that the water system be completed by 2024, could render the Decree null and void. The county, pueblos, and Bureau of Interior representatives have recently held several closed door meetings to discuss the road easement controversy, but there has been no announcement that anything has been resolved. Attorneys for the Pojoaque based organization Northern New Mexicans protecting Land, Water, and Rights (NNMProtects), which filed suit over the easement issues, were prevented from attending these meetings, as was Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, whose district covers the adjudication area of northern Santa Fe County.
So it looks like in a little over two weeks the Aamodt Adjudication Decree will take effect without my question ever being answered. We’ll have to wait and see if Santa Fe County releases the funding in time to meet the September 15 deadline. At the August 16th hearing the folks who spoke before the OSE—folks who have spoken at previous meetings, written letters, complained to their legislators, and formally objected to the terms of the settlement (all objections were denied by the court)—seemed very tired. They worried that complying with the regulations of the regional water system that most of them didn’t want in the first place will be overwhelming for mayordomos and commissioners who are volunteers. They worried that acequia rights could be lost because of lack of provision for water banking. They worried that the terms of the settlement pits the pueblo community against the Hispano community.
In a recent Santa Fe New Mexican article (reprinted in the Taos News) mayordomo Pat Beaseley had this to say about the entire process: “After 51 years of this stuff, I’m like, ‘Let’s just get it over with.’ It’s unfortunate the powers that be have squandered all this time and money, and nothing’s really been accomplished except more rules.”