BLOOMFIELD — The water war is on.

The San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association is rallying local water users at 7 tonight to educate users about the ongoing Navajo Water Rights Settlement. The organization is the most represented local group that is fighting the settlement, but it is hoping to recruit as many interested advocates as possible.

"We stand to lose a whole lot if this goes through," said association president Mike Sullivan of the settlement.

The agreement, which was signed in December by former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, is a battle that has been fought since the 1960s, though it's rooted in documentation dating back to the 1800s. The Navajo Nation claims senior rights to water in the San Juan, but locals argue those rights were superseded in the 1940s.

Though the settlement has been resolved between the state, the United States and the Navajo Nation, New Mexicans continue to contest that it will deprive them of their main source of water. It grants more than 600,000 acre-feet of diversions and 325,670 acre-feet of depletions from the San Juan River to the Navajo Nation. One acre-foot is approximately 43,560 cubic feet.

The greatest concern is water in the Hogback-Cudei and Fruitland-Cambridge irrigation projects. Both will service the Shiprock area and provide about 12,000 acre feet of water per year, according to the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico settlement agreement. Unlike other irrigation projects, these two projects will sponge river water, as opposed to storage water.

"They're not really offering us anything," said Sullivan, who did not know how many acre-feet would be granted to the basin's water users under the settlement. Sullivan is just one of the area farmers who feels the settlement could threaten farmers' livelihoods and lifestyles during drought years.

After the federal government sent letters to more than 19,000 alleged water users in the San Juan Basin, the water users association hopes to be well backed in its efforts. Each letter notifies users that they have the right to file objections to the settlement. Individuals can represent themselves or join one the more than 30 area ditches that likely will hire lawyers for representation.

Granted, the process has not been as smooth as desired.

"Some people have gotten notices. Some people haven't gotten notices. Some people that don't even have water rights have gotten notices," Sullivan said, noting that tonight's meeting should alleviate some of the confusion.

Because the federal government sent the notices, the association is uncertain as to what mailing list was used. Members hope that all water users received one.

"If you own land that's served by the San Juan River, you're likely to have water rights," said Victor R. Marshall, attorney for the association. Because of the complexity of water rights, many users do not know they have them, which poses an issue in gettin them to care.

"For most people, it's out of sight, out of mind," Marshall said.

The more people on board with the opposition, the stronger chance that the 11th District Court might modify the amount of water granted to the Navajo Nation.

"The crucial thing is don't throw away those notices," said Marshall, who said the notices must be sent in by Sept. 16.

Yet proponents of the settlement say that San Juan County residents will be better off with the current document. Not only is the amount of water requested less than it would be without a settlement, but it benefits water users living outside of the reservation.

"You can't fault people for getting upset over things because water is critical," said Stanley Pollack, attorney from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. "But the settlement is less than our claim."

While the Hogback and Fruitland projects will take from the San Juan River directly, most requested water will come from storage. Without access to this storage water, the Navajo would need more water directly from the river, Pollack said.

Concerns go beyond water shortages, though. Rumors that the Navajo Nation intends to lease San Juan River water to entities outside New Mexico upset opponents of the settlement.

Pollack said the Navajo had no such plans, but he believed it was within their right to do so. 

The meeting will take place tonight at the Bloomfield High School auditorium at 7 p.m.

Jenny Kane:

jkane@daily-times.com