Santa Fe County commissioners are expected to vote next month on a deal to create a regional water utility with four area pueblos, a project that would end more than half a century of divisive litigation over water rights in the Pojoaque Valley.
If the five-member commission approves an agreement to establish a governing board for the regional water system, the utility would divert flows from the Rio Grande at San Ildefonso Pueblo and send the water to county residents from Española to Santa Fe. And it would take an act of Congress to dissolve the system, the key part of a settlement in the nation’s longest-running federal lawsuit.
The Aamodt case, named for the first listed defendant — one of hundreds — was filed in 1966 by the New Mexico state engineer to determine water rights in the Pojoaque Basin river system that feeds into the Rio Grande, particularly in times of shortage. The contentious issue involves four pueblos in the area — Nambe, Tesuque, San Ildefonso and Pojoaque — as well as thousands of other residents tapping into private wells and using irrigation water.
Following decades of litigation, opposition and negotiations, the state, Santa Fe County, the city of Santa Fe and the four pueblos signed off on the federal settlement in March 2013. Pueblo representatives told commissioners last week that they approve of a joint powers agreement to create the governing structure for the water system.
Now it’s up to the County Commission to move the measure forward. The panel is scheduled to vote on the deal Nov. 29.
Santa Fe County would serve as the fiscal agent for the utility.
The federal government is on the hook for 65 percent of the estimated $261.2 million project, while the state would pay $72 million. Santa Fe County, meanwhile, is expected to contribute $11.7 million.
Under the settlement, the four pueblos are allocated 2,500 acre-feet annually, while the county water utility would get 1,500 acre-feet to serve other residents. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons.
Homeowners may connect into the system or continue using their private wells, but the amount they can pump is limited. And once a property is transferred or sold, the owner would have to connect to the regional water system.
County officials say the settlement protects non-pueblo residents while establishing higher-priority water rights for the pueblos, which had first claim to the flows under the state’s first-come, first-served water appropriation law.
Sandra Ely, the county’s project manager for the Aamodt settlement, said well users will be permitted to pump up to 162,900 gallons annually, or about 13,570 gallons per month. She said that exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of the national average household water use — 146,000 gallons annually.
“The settlement also protects traditional agriculture and acequias,” Ely said, adding that the diverted water will help recharge aquifers.
Some residents who attended the County Commission meeting Tuesday said they were concerned about how much they will have to pay for the system’s water. Others said they were concerned about being underrepresented on the water utility’s board.
State Rep. Carl Trujillo of Santa Fe and others in attendance also told commissioners that the well limits could be too low for the many residents who maintain small farms and gardens.
Josh Mann, an attorney for the U.S. Interior Department, told the crowd that building the water system will not only ensure the end of the Aamodt case but also will provide a source of clean water for area residents for years to come. According to Ely, studies have shown that many of the region’s wells have high levels of naturally occurring uranium, which can lead to kidney disease and increased risk of cancer.
“Compromise by definition means that each party must make concessions, and Aamodt is no exception,” Mann said.
The proposed board of directors would be composed of one member from each of the five parties — the four pueblos and the county — and two water customers appointed by those five directors.
Trujillo suggested there was an imbalance in representation. Of the roughly 9,200 residents in the basin, he said, just 1,465 — some 16 percent — are pueblo people.
“This is the place that the attorneys have decided to label pueblo and non-pueblo people. … That’s created some division, as well, in this system,” he said.
Recent tribal actions to enforce trespassing notices on road easements also have created distrust in the community, Trujillo added.
“I think in order for this system to be robust, efficient and reliable … cooperation is a must,” he said.
But Ann Gifford, who lives near Nambé, disputed such a division has emerged. “Any impression that there’s been a culture conflict created by the settlement, I think, is mistaken,” she said. “I’ve been involved in many, many community discussions about this subject, and I have not heard one person criticize the fact that the settlement has recognized and settled the rights of the pueblos and acknowledged their status as first in time.”
The water utility, which will be constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, must be substantially completed by 2024.
Ely said if that deadline and others are not met, the settlement agreement is “no longer in effect, and all unexpended funds would go back to the federal government and litigation would begin again.”
Audible gasps could be heard from the audience in the packed commission chambers.