AZTEC — Fearful of losing water rights to the Navajo Nation, Aztec and Bloomfield have joined forces to oppose sections of the San Juan Navajo Water Rights Settlement before it is brought to the 11th District Judicial Court.

The two cities are expected to be joined in their litigation by thousands of San Juan County residents, all of whom hope to modify the amount of water granted to the Navajo Nation in a settlement which has been battled since the 1960s.

"Bloomfield and Aztec aren't opposed to the settlement. They just want to make sure the settlement amount of water proposed is fair," said Richard B. Cole, attorney for the cities of Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington.

The settlement, which was signed in December by former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, has been resolved between the state, the United States and the Navajo Nation. It grants approximately 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 amount of water that Aztec and Bloomfield will contest is undecided, but the goal is to secure the cities' surplus storage usually used in drought years.

"This only really would matter in an extreme situation," said Lynne Raner, Bloomfield's Water Commission representative.

The greatest threat to the Aztec and Bloomfield water supply will be the Hogback-Cudei and Fruitland-Cambridge irrigation projects, according to Raner.

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 absorb river water, as opposed to store the water.

"This area here's got a lot of water. This area here receives more water than goes through anywhere else," said Robert Oxford, a former state engineer and current consultant for the city of Aztec.

The Hogback and Fruitland irrigation ditches are particularly important to Bloomfield and Aztec because of the seniority the two cities feel they have. Though the Navajo Nation claims to have rights to the two ditches, dating back to 1868, Aztec and Bloomfield disagree.

"It's just history," said Raner.

The 1868 rights were passed at a time when the reservation's boundaries did not include the Hogback and Fruitland ditches, according to Raner. Later, in 1887, Aztec and Bloomfield obtained rights prior to the Navajo Nation in 1907. Therefore, in years of drought, Bloomfield and Aztec believe they have priority to that water.

But 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.

"There's a myriad of protections within the settlement to protect the other folks," said Stanley Pollack, attorney from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.

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

"You can't fault people for getting upset over things because water is critical," said Pollack. "But the settlement is less than our claim."

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.

"There's a lot of doubt that the Navajos will put all this water to use on the reservation... The question is do you have the right to?" said Oxford.

Pollack said the Navajo have no such plans, but he believes it is within their right to do so.

In upcoming weeks, registered water users in the county will receive notices that they can either participate or actively oppose sections of the settlement.

"People better look at it and do something," said Victor R. Marshall, attorney for the San Juan Agricultural Users Association. Marshall, who is concerned people won't pay attention to the notices, said it's now or never for people to take a stand against the settlement.

Public meetings will be scheduled throughout this month, and the next. Those who want to participate in the opposition of the settlement must file objections by May 31.

Jenny Kane: jkane@daily-times.com