FARMINGTON — Officials on Thursday debated the benefits of the Navajo Water Rights Settlement during the New Mexico Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting at San Juan College.
The committee, which is made up of state senators and representatives, listened to several presenters on opposing sides of the issue.
Earlier this month, Judge James Wechsler, representing New Mexico's Eleventh Judicial District Court in San Juan County, approved the Navajo Water Rights Settlement. It approves a 2005 agreement between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico regarding the Nation's water rights claims on the San Juan River.
Some local irrigation users are worried that the move will affect water supply. The settlement diverts an additional 350,000 acre feet of water to the Nation, which is more than double the amount the tribe currently uses.
The project involves a pipeline running east of Shiprock down to Gallup.
An additional worry opponents of the settlement expressed is that the Nation could decide to sell the water downstream to out-of-state cities, depleting New Mexico of its limited water supply.
Estevan Lopez, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, highlighted the benefits of the water rights settlement. In addition to economic benefits and the construction jobs that will come from the project, he said passage of the settlement avoids continued costly litigation that could exceed the cost of the water pipeline.
"This will not displace other water users, and we estimate the project will create 650 new jobs," he said. "It will also bring water to non-Navajo and Navajo communities along the route to Gallup."
Lopez said the settlement includes limits on how much water the Nation can consume and how much it can move outside of the reservation.
"If we don't implement this now, the $53 million that's already been allocated to it will come to naught," he said.
Representing the settlement's opposition was Jim Rogers, a member of the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association. Rogers said those opposed to the settlement were not allowed to obtain information on it until the deal was made.
"We were told it was a closed negotiation with a sovereign nation," he said. "We were never told what was going on, and we never had a chance to have any input."
Rogers said his group hired an engineer to conduct a survey to determine if there would be enough water after implementation of the project. The engineer found that there would not be enough water, Rogers told the committee on Thursday.
He added that the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association believes the settlement negotiations were structured to create controversy and to prevent local residents from sharing input.
"We blame the state of New Mexico for creating this," he said. "The Navajos are my neighbors and my friends, and I resent being placed in a position of mistrust and suspicion by having to ask about protecting existing water rights. They left us no choice but to oppose this by any legal grounds we could."
Lopez agreed that local irrigators were not part of settlement negotiations, but he said substantial concessions were made as a result of the group's concerns.
Following the presentations, members of the committee expressed concerns that because of drought conditions and the diversion to the Nation, there would come a year when there is not be enough water for everyone. But Lopez assured them that a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation determined that there is sufficient water.
Other committee members expressed concerns about the nation selling the water outside New Mexico.
"I expect there'll come a time when Albuquerque and Santa Fe want to buy this water, and our farmers will want to buy this water. If they're competing with, say, Los Angeles, I have a good idea how this is going to go," said state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.
Lopez said the state would have veto power in that scenario.
After the conference, Victor Marshall, an attorney representing the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association, said there is nothing stopping the Nation from selling the water to whoever they want.
"The simple answer is that Lopez was wrong. They cannot prevent water from going out of state because you cannot discriminate against interstate commerce," he said.
Marshall said that as soon as the settlement approval is final, the association plans to appeal the decision. The appeals process, which could take several years, could end up in the New Mexico Supreme Court.
"We think the judge made serious mistakes in not having a trial (to decide the settlement)," he said. "We need a real system of water courts, where judges live in the counties where the rivers are. This can't be done by remote control from Santa Fe."