Federal Officials Say Santa Fe, N.M.-Area Water Case Cost Too High

A bombshell was dropped Wednesday on a nearly 40-year-old federal court case aimed at sorting out water rights among pueblos and non-Indians in northern Santa Fe County.

SANTA FE, N.M. — A bombshell was dropped Wednesday on a nearly 40-year-old federal court case aimed at sorting out water rights among pueblos and non-Indians in northern Santa Fe County.

Federal officials announced they don't intend to pony up the $200 million needed to help bring the so-called Aamodt case -- which dates from 1966 -- to a close.

The federal Department of Justice, the Interior Department and the Office of Management and Budget will not back a proposed settlement, which calls for development of a regional water system, because it's too expensive, a Justice Department lawyer said.

Attorneys involved in the case said the federal government was anticipated to contribute more than $200 million to the proposed settlement. The most recent estimate of the total settlement cost is reported to be around $278 million.

The proposal is intended to resolve the water claims of four pueblos -- Pojoaque, Tesuque, Nambe and San Ildefonso -- and includes construction costs and acquisition of water rights for a regional water system in the Pojoaque Valley.


U.S. trial attorney Bradley Bridgewater told a packed federal courtroom that the government is willing to spend "substantially less" than 25 percent of the $200 million liability it was expected to pay. The federal contribution could be as little as $11"million, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici said in a news release.

"The $11 million figure from the Justice Department is a little less than I anticipated. But frankly, at no point did I think the federal government would in the end be liable for some of the very large amounts that have been suggested," Domenici said. "This just shows what a tough hill we have to climb with Aamodt and the other pending settlements in New Mexico -- many of which will run into the same problem."

The announcement was delivered during a status conference before U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez. It came just as arbitrators were close to finalizing the settlement document to meet a March 31 deadline that the parties previously agreed to.

Vazquez and the teams of attorneys present said they were stunned by the news of the funding setback, which most of them had heard just before the hearing.

"It's just amazing to me at this late in the game someone with the U.S. government decides they're not happy (with the cost)," Vazquez said.

The Aamodt case is said to be the longest-standing case in the federal court system. It has been in court-ordered mediation since 2000.

The settlement proposal is based on the doctrine of prior appropriation, whereby the pueblos are guaranteed first priority water rights to 3,660 acre-feet of water while non-pueblo residents must agree to cap their existing wells and hook up to a water delivery system.

In return for the non-Indians giving up their domestic wells, the four area pueblos would agree to restrictions on their ability to take water from non-Indian users in times of drought.

Since details of the proposed settlement were made public last March, non-Indian residents in the Pojoaque Valley have voiced significant opposition to the idea of giving up their private wells.

The next step Legal counsel for the state, the pueblos and the Pojoaque Basin Water Alliance, a group formed last March to represent non-pueblo people in the Pojoaque Valley, said they would have to speak to their clients before deciding what to do next.

"Really it remains to be seen what the next step is," said Peter Shoenfeld, an attorney representing non-pueblo interests. During the hearing, he told the judge it was "premature to announce the demise of the settlement negotiations."

Several attorneys suggested the negotiations continue as scheduled.

"Mr. Bridgewater's message is quite significant. We need to take it very seriously, but we're certainly not prepared to set everything aside and go back to litigation," Nambe Pueblo lawyer Scott McElroy said.

However, Mark Sheridan, attorney for the Rio Pojoaque Acequia and Water Well Association, said he didn't see any point in going forward.

Sheridan said the fundamental basis of the settlement was the creation of a regional water utility. The system will be impossible to build without federal money and support, he said.

Vazquez, who has been supportive of the settlement process, agreed government backing was critical. She also stressed that a resolution to this case cannot be delayed much longer.

"I can't imagine it going to Congress and having a prayer without government support," she said. "My concern is this case has been going on for so long and, as Judge (Leslie C.) Smith put it, one of these days we're going to turn on the faucet and there's not going to be any water."

Vazquez continued, "We're not going to let this case hang around another 30 years. I won't be here, and I want this resolved."

The judge advised the lawyers to make a decision by the next status conference on whether to proceed with the settlement or take it to court.

After the hearing, David Stupin of the Chupadero Water and Sewage Corp., which operates north of Tesuque, said he knew all along that the proposal would be too expensive.

"I kind of expected it," he said. "I just didn't expect it today."

Source: Knight Rider/Tribune Business News