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Who Controls the Tap?

UPDATE: Aamodt settlement faces hurdle over board representation

November 29, 2016, 12:00 am

12:39 PM: This article has been amended to show that the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday tabled a vote on the Aamodt Joint Powers Agreement.

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 throughout the area north of Santa Fe, known as the Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque Basin. 

The designs on the walls—a maze of blue and purple lines signaling water lines—represents 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 jotted down questions on strips of paper, which were fielded by panel members. Will non-Pueblo residents get first dibs on construction jobs? (No, San Ildefonso will get priority because the intake structure will be located on the tribe’s land.) How big will the tanks be? (100,000 to half a million gallons.) Will this settlement affect surface water rights? (No.)  

They’re gathered at the hotel as a result of the Aamodt settlement agreement finalized by a judge's ruling this spring quantifying the water rights of the Pueblos, who agreed to reduced claims, and of the non-Indian landowners in the region—from recent arrivals who opened businesses or took up residence in the basin to generational descendants of Spanish land grant recipients. The agreement 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?

That question will be at play Tuesday evening when county commissioners discuss a potential agreement with the four Pueblos to create a governing body for the water system. (The board Tuesday morning tabled a vote on the proposal scheduled for the same day.) Some non-Pueblo residents fear their voices won’t be heard on a board of directors that includes four Pueblo representatives, a county commissioner, and two other members appointed by the first five directors.

State legislators who represent constituents in the basin, Rep. Carl Trujillo (D-Santa Fe) and Sen. Carlos Cisneros (D-Questa), want 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.

Commissioner Henry Roybal, who represents most of the basin in the county's northernmost district, plans to introduce an amendment Tuesday evening that will cede authority of the two appointments to legislators. The move could complicate a vote by the Board of County Commissioners to approve or reject a joint powers agreement with the four Pueblos that would create a governing board known as the Regional Water Authority.

Roybal tells SFR that his amendment 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 locations in Pojoaque and Nambe.

But County Commissioner Miguel Chavez, who lives in the Santa Fe city limits and leaves office after just two more planned commission meetings, 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 estimated $159.3 million construction costs. Meanwhile, the state and county plan to cover $45.5 million and $7.4 million, respectively.  

When engineers lay down the pipes, residents with existing groundwater wells have three options going forward. 1) They can deactivate their wells and hook up to the system whenever the lines reach them, handing their water rights over to the county; 2) They can choose to keep their wells; 3) Or they can maintain their wells, but give them up when they sell their property with the understanding that the buyer agrees to connect to the system.

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 unanswered questions 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 a roads dispute between the county and San Idelfonso Pueblo could put the agreement at risk. County commissioners last year adopted a resolution that would withhold its $7.4 million contribution towards the water system if it did not settle another dispute with San Ildefonso Pueblo over a highway that the tribe claims illegally passes through its land.

The Board of County Commissioners will begin hearing public comment on the proposed joint powers agreement at the county administrative building tonight no earlier than 6 pm.


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