FARMINGTON — The fight over water in San Juan County is far from over despite an historic water rights settlement approved late last week that could impact San Juan County's residents for decades to come.
The settlement was signed by Judge James Wechsler in the Aztec District Court and guarantees the Navajo Nation an additional 130,000 acre-feet of water on top of the 195,000 acre-feet previously allotted to the tribal government. The settlement also secures federal support for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project that will provide water to the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the city of Gallup.
The decision is likely to be appealed.
An acre-foot is roughly enough water to supply an average suburban family for one year.
While Stanley Pollack, assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice Water Rights Unit praised the deal, critics say it will dry out the region and open doors for the tribal government to sell water to large cities downstream, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
"I'm glad to see the conflict over," said Randy Kirkpatrick, San Juan Water Commission executive director in a phone interview Monday morning. "This conflict has been very destructive for San Juan County. We now know what the rules are and we need to move forward."
Victor Marshall, an Albuquerque-based attorney representing parties opposed to the settlement took a different view.
"Water-wise, this is a death sentence of San Juan County and the rest of New Mexico," Marshall said. "If the Navajo finally get all this water, they can export it to other states. All they have to do is leave it in the river and it flows on down."
Pollack says the tribal government has waived rights to market water outside of New Mexico.
The nation's officials would have to receive a permit from the Interstate Stream Commission in order to market the water out of state, he said.
"Under the terms of the settlement the Navajo Nation cannot even use the water in Navajo communities in Arizona and Utah without separate agreements from (those states)," Pollack said.
"That section only deals with a specific situation," he said.
Marshall cited Pollack's comments in a February 2011 Daily Times article saying that the Navajo Nation did not have plans to sell water outside New Mexico, but that it would "be within their rights to do so."
"Mr. Pollack is just blowing legal smoke," he said. "That provision doesn't create a blanket restriction."
Pollack said he was talking about what would happen if there was no settlement.
"With the settlement there is no such challenge," he said. "We are agreeing not to assert that right. It's really much ado about nothing."
The settlement also provides for an alternate water supply that will reduce the chance of calls on the river in times of drought, Pollack said.
The agreement includes as section stating the Navajo Nation must use 12,000 acre-feet per year of stored water from Navajo Lake, provided at least one million acre-feet are stored in the reservoir, before making a call on the river.
Although the lake historically holds between one million and 1.7 million acre-feet of water, levels dropped to just around 900,000 acre-feet this year, according to a chart on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's website.
The water rights settlement is also worrying local farmers and ranchers.
Jim Rogers, 68, has grown alfalfa on his farm in Waterflow for decades. His fields butt up against Hogback on the eastern border of the Navajo Reservation.
The Jewett Valley Water Users Association has water rights going back to 1878, Rogers said.
"(The ditch) is seven miles long and is mostly Anglo users, but there are plenty of native members here too," he said. "The Navajo water rights are one of the few (rights) that will trump it."
Rogers says the deal is bad for residents in San Juan County and on the Navajo Nation alike.
"We believe that it will slowly dry us up," he said.
And Rogers fears the deal will divide the community as crop losses mount.
"I've lived here on this land since I was 16," he said. "I know these people. The Navajo are my neighbors. I went to high school with some of them. This ground was settled by my wife's family in 1900. (The settlement) puts me at odds with my neighbors."
He pointed to the different farms surrounding his land.
"These people have put their lives into the land," Rogers said. "When the water goes so does the value of the majority of the land."