FARMINGTON — Thousands of local water rights holders must file their notice to participate in Navajo Nation Water Rights Settlement hearings in the next month or they could lose their voice in upcoming hearings.

A judge extended to Jan. 17 the deadline for San Juan County water rights holders to file the needed paperwork.

"Some confusion arose about whether individuals using a ditch represented by an attorney needed to file a Notice of Intent in order to participate," said Darcy Bushnell, the director of the Joe M. Stell Water Ombudsman program. "The court extended the deadline to file a Notice of Intent to Participate so that anyone who has not yet signed up can do so or have an attorney file for them."

Judge James Wechsler extended the deadline to participate while granting the request of several local groups who asked to change lawyers.

Victor Marshall, an Albuquerque lawyer who represents 24 irrigation ditches in San Juan County, filed an entry appearance on behalf of more than 10,000 county residents for the settlement hearings.

Marshall said he filed on their behalf because the deadline to file the notice to participate was fast approaching. He pulled names off membership rolls of irrigation ditches and then the ditches passed Marshall's legal fee of $3 per irrigated acre on to members.

Marshall caused problems when he included in his list of clients governments, businesses and individual water rights holders who already hired attorneys, according to court documents.

Wechsler's ruling does not affect the 1,200 county residents who filed their notice to participate in court and officially listed Marshall as their attorney, Marshall said. Marshall's remaining clients will have to file their entry of appearance before the January deadline.

"I represent 24 irrigation ditches and the 1,000-plus who filed their notice to participate," he said. "Beyond that, it's quite unclear."

By filing the notice to participate, local water rights holders will have the ability to object or support the terms of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Settlement during pending hearings.

"If you choose to participate, basically what you are doing is choosing to be informed of everything that takes place," said Mark Duncan, the chairman of the San Juan Water Commission. "We're just saying the process should be fair and open to everybody so that we all can have an opportunity to voice our opinions, whether we agree or disagree with it."

The settlement was reached between the state of New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and the United States government. The agreement allows the Nation to divert 600,000 acre-feet of water per year from the San Juan River.

The tribe gave up some of its water rights in exchange for a pipeline that will pump the water to American Indian communities from Farmington to Gallup and other infrastructure projects, according to the state engineer's website.

"Now the court is going to take a look at the terms of the settlement," Bushnell said. "It's one step that has to be taken in this journey."

A collection of legal items must be worked out in court as part of the settlement. For example, a hearing is scheduled for today to determine who should prove the terms reached by the settling parties are fair.

Elizabeth Taylor, an attorney for the San Juan Water Commission, filed a brief that said the Navajo Nation has to prove in court it is entitled to the amount of water it received as part of the settlement.

Attorneys for the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico, on the other hand, filed arguments that said people who object to the settlement have to prove the Nation isn't entitled to the water, according to court records.

The hearing is at 9:30 a.m. in Albuquerque and will be televised in Aztec District Court.