Aamodt Deal Sparks Further Queries

The New Mexican

POJOAQUE – Pojoaque Valley property owners Thursday night peppered Santa Fe County officials and others involved in the Aamodt water settlement with myriad questions about the impacts – large and small – of the proposed agreement in what may be the country’s longest-running water rights case.

Many water users have complained their concerns have been ignored or unheard as the agreement – which would spell out water-use rights for the pueblos and non-Indian water users in the valley – nears approval by Congress.

County Commissioner Harry Montoya called the meeting at Pablo Roybal Elementary School to explain some of the details of the complex agreement and take questions from residents, who eventually will have to decide whether to sign on to an extensive Rio Grande water delivery system that is a major component of the settlement. About 130 people attended the meeting.

Among the many concerns were the agreement’s impact on the environment and whether it may already be outdated because of global warming; whether residents could “bank” their water rights for future use or for conservation purposes and who will decide the disputed issues over use of wells on private property. The assembled officials and lawyers could answer some but not all questions related to the settlement, which is 42 years in the making.

As to water rights versus ownership and conservation, “it’s not like you own the water and you control it and nobody else can use it,” said attorney Mark Sheridan, who represents about 500 non-Indian individuals and groups in negotiations.

In answer to a question about conservation, Sheridan delivered what amounted to a Water Rights 101 lecture and noted that “in a ‘water-short system’ if you are not using the right that you are entitled to, then another user, a junior user, is entitled to use it.” Compared to the pueblos, all other users could be considered lower priority, Sheridan said.

He also said if the pueblos were to claim the rights to all the water they have been historically entitled to, there would be little if any water left for use by non-Indians.

John Utton, a water-rights attorney for the county, said the pueblos, as part of the Aamodt agreement, have abandoned their “forbearance” historical claims to what has been adjudicated over the decades as their rights to much of the groundwater in the Pojoaque Basin.

Under the Aamodt agreement, Utton said, the pueblos will not assert their rights against domestic wells up to the agreed limits that can be withdrawn during a year’s time.

Utton said the county’s goal is to try to protect the status quo of the existing water users as much as possible.

He added that a negotiated settlement is better by far than a decision issued by a court. The settlement process allows “more to work with and less to fight about,” Utton said.

Utton called the settlement “quite a flexible agreement” and sought to dispel reports that successive property owners would be required to hook up to the water delivery system. “There is no requirement to hook up to it,” he said.

In a related matter Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. The bill, which address numerous water-rights, wilderness preservation and public-lands-use issues, would authorize, but not appropriate, up to $250 million for the Aamodt delivery system, the county officials said.

Utton said the county could save $30 million to $40 million by using the federal funds to construct much of the water delivery system. The proposal would tap the Rio Grande and pump water through the Pojoaque Valley and then south through Tesuque into the Bishop’s Lodge area.