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The Aamodt Settlement Conundrum
A complex situation involving water and property rights in the Pojoaque Valley
The Aamodt water-rights case, named after a party in the original litigation, was filed 50 years ago to settle “Aboriginal” claims of four pueblos that are vying for water with hundreds of non-pueblo farmers and well owners in the Nambé-Pojoaque-Tesuque stream basin. If the final settlement agreement, signed in 2013, withstands the challenges that have been filed in District Court, a Pojoaque Valley Regional Water System (RWS) will be built to replace the pumping of existing wells in the valley north of Santa Fe.
Non-pueblo residents, who own about 2,600 private wells in the Pojoaque Basin, have to make a choice before Sept. 17, 2017: give up their wells and connect to a pipeline; keep their wells but significantly reduce their usage; or reduce their use and agree that when the well is eventually transferred—such as through inheritance or sale—the new owner will be obligated to connect to the pipeline.
The $245 million Bureau of Reclamation-built project could be completed by 2024. Sixty percent of the cost is to be covered by the feds; of the remaining 40 percent, New Mexico would pay 28 percent and Santa Fe County, 12 percent. The Río Grande diversion, treatment and pumping facilities would be built on pueblo of San Ildefonso land, about three-quarters of a mile east of the Otowi Bridge. The pipeline would end at Bishop’s Lodge. Some of the water diverted would come from the Upper Colorado River Basin, made possible by the San Juan-Chama Project, which now provides about half of Santa Fe’s water supply.
The settlement agreement hands over 6,100 acre-feet of water to the four pueblos, which would control the pipeline by holding four of the five seats on the regional water authority board. The pueblos have agreed not to make priority calls against non-pueblo users in most circumstances. Non-pueblo well owners, who account for 85 percent of the basin’s population, will have access to between 1,500 and 2,300 acre-feet per year of a reliable water supply. Families who lose water rights will not have the same amount of water to irrigate their land.
In order to make the system financially viable, at least 1,500 well owners must agree to give up their wells. So far, only about 120 non-pueblo residents have agreed to do that and connect to the pipeline. About 800 have refused, and 30 to 40 percent of well owners have not responded.
In dividing non-pueblo people from the pueblos, the project has alienated friends and governing entities that had largely cooperated for generations. The pueblo of San Ildefonso, citing the Pueblos Lands Act (1924) and plans for future expansion, has asserted sovereignty over [and thus ability to charge for] Santa Fe County easements that the pipeline would use. Some non-pueblo residents, in accessing homes in the area via county-maintained roads they have traversed for years, have encountered “no trespassing” signs. The uncertain legal status of those roads has made lenders unwilling to fund mortgages and construction and reportedly has driven down property values. Property owners from El Rancho who have been unable to get titles from insurance companies and thus obtain loans, have filed a federal lawsuit.
A Pojoaque Valley community advocacy organization, Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights (“Northern New Mexico Protects”) picketed Santa Fe County administrative offices and last month held a panel discussion to discuss these issues with local and national leaders. The group has appealed a federal judge’s dismissal of their lawsuit over the right-of-way roads dispute. The judge said the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the complaint and that the group had not fulfilled requirements to sue under the federal Quiet Title Act, which protects the U.S. government from lawsuits when Indian lands are involved.
In August 2015, Santa Fe County commissioners, fearful of high easement and litigation costs, voted to not approve payments toward the water system unless the disputes over the roads are resolved. The county, in federal court, defended its resolution, linking the public roads right-of-way dispute with the Aamodt water-rights litigation.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), who had tried to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to resolve the tribal roads easement dispute, has asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to intervene.
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