FARMINGTON — New Mexico State Engineer Scott Verhines has submitted a response in the state's highest court to a recently filed lawsuit challenging the Navajo Nation water rights settlement.
The lawsuit states the Aug. 19 settlement approval is void because then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who left office in December 2010, signed the compact with the Navajo Nation and federal government without first submitting it to the state lawmakers. That was a violation of the state constitution, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit's plaintiffs — three of whom are legislators: Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec and Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe — ask the New Mexico Supreme Court to cancel the settlement and allow the New Mexico Legislature to vet it.
Verhines, in his supreme court filing, says the lawsuit should be denied and the matter should be handled by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
The supreme court has not yet issued its order on the lawsuit.
Efforts to reach Verhines for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.
Victor Marshall, the plaintiff's attorney, said the supreme court ruling could take three to five years if his clients must wait for the regular appeal process, and that's too long.
"It's urgent because until the supreme court rules, nobody knows what they're water rights are, and nobody knows where the Navajo Nation would get all of this water," he said. "That's a monster question mark that's hanging above everybody's head."
The settlement allows the reservation to pull more than 600,000 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River, but the lawsuit's plaintiffs say whether the state will effectively enforce priority dates is uncertain.
Priority dates determine a water user's right to draw from bodies of water. A city that has been pulling river water since 1890, for example, assumes a higher priority than a city that began drawing the water in 1910. In times of shortage, junior water rights are cut first.
Marshall has said the state's water rights laws are unclear.