Scores of water users gathered at the Cities of Gold Hotel for a yet another meeting over a centuries-old conflict.
Lawyers, tribal governors and county representatives sat alongside officials from the State Engineer's Office at the front of a banquet hall. Maps stuck along the back walls displayed blueprints for a proposed system that aims to deliver water from the Rio Grande to users to the area north of Santa Fe—the culmination of decades of heated litigation involving Santa Fe County, the US Department of Justice, the State of New Mexico and the four Pueblos that claim parts of the region as their homeland: Pojoaque, Nambe, Tesuque and San Ildefonso.
Skeptics of the system gathered at the hotel in early November as a result of a settlement finalized by a judge this spring. The case quantifies the water rights of the Pueblos, who agreed to reduced claims, and the rights of the non-Indian landowners in the region. The Aamodt case, as it's known, stems from a lawsuit filed in 1966 by the State Engineer's Office to determine the water rights of basin landowners.
With this lawsuit that's lingered for decades, there seem to always be more questions than answers. Right now, the big issue is one of governance. Who will control the tap?
County commissioners on Tuesday delayed a highly anticipated vote deciding whether to create or reject a regional water authority that would oversee the management and operation of the proposed system.
The delay came in response to non-Pueblo residents who fear their voices won't be heard on a board of directors that includes four Pueblo representatives, a county commissioner, and two other members to be appointed by the other directors.
Commissioner Henry Roybal, who represents most of the basin in the county's northernmost district, introduced two amendments Tuesday evening to change how the latter two board members would be chosen.
State legislators who represent constituents in the basin, Rep. Carl Trujillo (D-Santa Fe) and Sen. Carlos Cisneros (D-Questa), support a proposal to grant themselves the power to choose the two additional board directors. Trujillo believes that will better ensure that non-Pueblo water users get representation on the governance over the utility, noting that 84 percent of basin residents are non-Pueblo.
The other proposal would grant appointment authority to the Board of County Commissioners.
Roybal tells SFR that either of his proposals could help attract much-needed customers to the water system. "I've met a lot of constituents that have reached out to me and called me telling me they feel they need more representation on the board," he says.
"They're ramrodding this thing and not listening to the will of the people," says Richard Reinders, owner of Estrella Del Norte Vineyard, which has land in Pojoaque and Nambe.
But County Commissioner Miguel Chavez, who lives within Santa Fe city limits and leaves office after just one more planned commission meeting, says there's no point waiting any longer to approve the agreement. He tells SFR, "I think that there's been enough discussion about this, there's been enough back and forth, and I think it's time now to move on. The Pueblos understand this. They've already made concessions."
To honor the senior water rights of the Pueblos, parties agreed to construct a new water utility that will run from the northernmost tip of Santa Fe County all the way to the edge of the city, delivering to the taps of homes and businesses down to the Bishop's Lodge resort. The feds have promised to pick up about 66 percent of the $159.3 million construction costs, as estimated in 2006. Meanwhile, the state and county plan to cover $45.5 million and $7.4 million, respectively.
As made evident by the flood of questions directed at experts during the Cities of Gold meeting, distrust runs high among basin residents. At the very least, confusion abounds. About 800 filed objections to the settlement, but had their claims thrown out in federal court in March. Of those, 330 appealed that ruling, and the 10th Circuit has yet to issue a decision on a question of whether the settlement is valid without approval from the Legislature.
Should the county approve the joint powers agreement, there are still unresolved issues that could thwart the terms of the settlement from coming into fruition, says A Blair Dunn, the lawyer representing the 330 settlement objectors appealing the federal ruling throwing out their case.
On top of Dunn's appeal, he says the county also needs to put to rest a conflict over Pueblo road access that puts county funding for the project at risk.