AZTEC — San Juan County water users gathered Tuesday to hear arguments from attorneys representing parties in the Navajo Nation water rights settlement case.

The hearing, held at the Eleventh Judicial District Court of New Mexico in Aztec, will continue today.

Though the judge could decide to approve the settlement today, it is unlikely. Even if it is approved, opponents may still appeal the decision.

The San Juan Navajo Water Rights Settlement establishes the tribe's water rights to the San Juan River.

In December 2010, the Navajo Nation, the state of New Mexico and the federal government agreed on the settlement, which was signed by both Joe Shirley Jr., then the Navajo Nation president, and former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

The settlement granted the tribe about 646,600 acre-feet of diversion water, or water to be used and then re-used, from the San Juan River. It also gave the tribe about 335,700 acre-feet of depletion water, or water that will not be returned to the river. One acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons.

No one could answer how many acre-feet of water actually run through the San Juan River.

For years, the tribe struggled to acquire the rights outlined by the settlement. Since the settlement was approved, though, the tribe has been dealing with push back. Water users from San Juan County but outside the Navajo Nation argue that the tribe is getting the better end of the deal.

While the tribe, state and the federal government are convinced that the settlement gives the tribe just enough water, local water users are convinced it is too much.

"There's not enough water to go around," said Gary Horner, a Farmington attorney who has water rights along the San Juan River and has been involved in the discussions for about 15 years.

Water users outside the reservation are concerned that if the settlement does not change, they will have to either buy water from the tribe or go without water, Horner said.

The waters of the San Juan River flows through Bloomfield on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
The waters of the San Juan River flows through Bloomfield on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

On the other hand, water users on the reservation argue that no one is losing water. They say it is more a declaration that the tribe has rights to the water at all -- something no one has ever made official in the court system.

"If everybody shares the water equally, there should be enough water for everyone," said Morris V. Johnson, a farmer from Fruitland and a member of the San Juan Dineh Water Users Association in Shiprock.

In case of a water shortage on the San Juan River, the settlement includes provisions that would require all users to cut back on their usage, Johnson said.

Still, with water flows low on the San Juan River in recent years, it is not known how much water users on both sides would have to cut back. What's also not clear is which party would have to cut back the most.

Jenny Kane covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and jkane@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane