Recently a lawsuit was filed by three state legislators attempting to stop the implementation of a water settlement with members of the Navajo Indian nation unless and until it received approval of the deal from the New Mexico Legislature. Now a similar issue arises – with one twist – concerning a water-rights settlement between the state and four pueblos in northern Santa Fe County. As with the water rights settlement with the Navajo Indians, opponents claim this agreement requires approval by the Legislature.
But these opponents also raise another potentially significant issue. They claim that the federal judge who oversaw the Aamodt water-rights case the past three years has a conflict of interest. It was this case that led to the settlement between the parties. One of the parties is the City of Santa Fe. The federal judge’s husband was recently elected to the city council of Santa Fe in March. The case Judge Martha Vazquez oversaw through settlement dates all the way back to the 1960’s. This raises the question whether a settlement should be deemed invalid because the presiding judicial officer who approved the settlement is married to someone who will be a representative of the municipality which is one of the settlement’s signatories.
The objection to the settlement also involves whether such water rights dispositions must be approved by the Legislature. In support of the objection, it is claimed that a New Mexico Supreme Court decision in 1995 which required then Governor, Gary Johnson, to obtain approval of a gaming compact with sovereign Indian tribes stands as a precedent that controls this issue.
A major feature of the settlement includes a Rio Grande river diversion at San Ildefonso and a water treatment plant for a regional water system. Whether or not this diversion and plant construction will occur may depend on the outcome of this developing legal dispute pitting the riparian rights of municipalities against the prerogatives of different branches of New Mexico’s state government. Both the issues of separation of powers and the presiding judge’s alleged conflict of interest may impact the way this water dispute ultimately plays out.
Mr. Giddens and the other attorneys at Giddens & Gatton Law, P.C. have experience advising New Mexico businesses and property owners regarding local, state and federal real property matters. Giddens & Gatton Law, P.C. is located at 10400 Academy Road N.E., Suite 350 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Call the office at (505) 633-6298 to set up an appointment or visit the firm’s website at giddenslaw.com for more information.