On March 21, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge William P. Johnson filed his memorandum and opinion approving the Aamodt Settlement Agreement.
In 2000, after 24 years of litigation over Pueblo water right claims in the Pojoaque Basin, negotiations began among the Pueblos of Nambé, Pojoaque, Tesuque and San Ildefonso, the State of New Mexico, the United States of America, the City of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County and representatives of non-Pueblo water users. An initial agreement was reached in 2006, and Congress passed the Aamodt Litigation Settlement Act in 2010. A Final Settlement, which included amendments to conform to the Act, was reached in March 2013—and in December 2013, the court issued an Order to Show Cause why the court should not approve the settlement. The deadline to file objections was April 7, 2014. The March 2016 ruling addresses the approximately 800 objections that were received.
The objections feed into three broad categories: complaints about procedure, concerns about implementation, and disagreements regarding the application of state and federal law.
Complaints about procedure included charges that the objecting party was excluded from the settlement negotiations, the executive branch does not have the authority to settle this matter, service of the Order to Show Cause was not properly served, and objectors had insufficient time to assess the Settlement Agreement. In each case Judge Johnson refuted the argument and ultimately stated, “It is well established that the settlement negotiations may be confidential and need not involve every party, that the Attorney General for the State of New Mexico has the power to settle this suit, and that the Order to Show Cause was properly served.” On the matter of whether objectors had sufficient time to assess the Settlement Agreement, he said that the numerous objections received demonstrate otherwise.
Concerns about implementation were numerous. Overall, Judge Johnson found them to be unfounded. In some cases, the objectors misread the Settlement Agreement. Objectors claiming violations of state or federal law misinterpreted those laws. In addition, the judge said, “…many of the Objections do not state the specific legal and factual basis for their objections, or state how the claimant’s water rights will be injured or harmed in a legally cognizable way by the Settlement Agreement and entry of the proposed decree and interim order.”
The court’s standard of review placed the burden on the objecting party “to demonstrate that the rights proposed to be settled pursuant to the Settlement Agreement should not be quantified and administered as proposed in the Settlement Agreement.” Judge Johnson concluded that Objectors did not meet that burden. He overruled the objections, approved the Settlement Agreement, and entered the Partial Final Judgement and Decree of the Water Rights and the Interim Administrative Order. The judge’s ruling allows the parties to move forward with implementation of the Settlement Agreement.
Under the Settlement Agreement, the Pueblos agree not to make priority calls against non-Pueblo users, and in exchange, the United States will acquire 2,500 AF per year of imported water for use by the Pueblos in the basin. In addition, parties will construct a regional water system, and Santa Fe County will acquire 750 AF per year of imported water, bringing the total volume available to non-Pueblo users to 1,500 AF per year. (For additional background on the Settlement, see “Aamodt Settlement Signed,” Water Strategist May 2006).
Written by Marta L. Weismann