3 Lawmakers Sue over 2010 Navajo Water Deal

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 10:00 pm | Updated: 11:48 pm, Wed May 14, 2014.

By Milan Simonich The New Mexican | 0 comments

Three New Mexico legislators filed a lawsuit Wednesday, claiming former Gov. Bill Richardson overstepped his powers by authorizing a settlement on water rights with the Navajo Nation.

The suit asks the New Mexico Supreme Court to order a legislative review of the agreement that Richardson negotiated with the tribe in December 2010. Richardson, a Democrat, left office less than a month later.

Lawmakers who brought the suit said every contractual agreement between New Mexico and a tribal government is subject to approval by the state Legislature, regardless of whether it involves casinos or water. They cited a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling against then-Gov. Gary Johnson, who had signed a tribal gambling compact without authorization from the Legislature.

Similarly, Rep. Paul Bandy said, Richardson circumvented the established process.

“The concern is that taxpayers are being asked to pay a big tab without the constitutional process of funding authorized by the Legislature and signed by the governor,” said Bandy, one of the legislators who filed the lawsuit.

Joining him in the case were Rep. Carl Trujillo and Sen. Steve Neville. Trujillo is a Democrat from Nambé. Bandy and Neville are Republicans from Aztec. Jim Rogers, an officer of the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association, also is a party to the lawsuit.

Their attorney, Victor Marshall, said the Supreme Court does not have to accept the case. If it does, a ruling could take months.

Trujillo, a first-term lawmaker who appeared with Marshall at a Capitol news conference, said the case has practical considerations as well as questions about whether a governor exceeded his authority.

The lawsuit says under three existing Colorado River compacts, New Mexico is entitled to “a small and fluctuating share of water. But the proposed Navajo compact would award more than half of New Mexico’s share to the Navajo Nation.”

This amounts to more than 600,000 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River. An acre-foot is about 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water that would cover an acre of land at a depth of 1 foot.

Legislators said in their suit that this diversion would be six times the amount of water channeled to the Albuquerque metro area and twice as much as is set aside for the city of Phoenix. Instead, the 600,000 acre-feet would serve about 42,000 people living on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, they said.

A spokesman for the Navajo Nation government did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Marshall said a state district judge in San Juan County has approved the proposed Navajo water settlement, though he and the legislators downplayed the significance of that ruling.

“Judicial approval is no substitute for legislative action,” they said in their suit. “As a matter of law … there is no agreement between the Navajo Nation, the United States and the state of New Mexico, so there is nothing for the district court to approve or disapprove.”

If the Supreme Court orders the water settlement to be sent to the New Mexico Legislature for review, lawmakers could accept it, modify it or reject it altogether.

 

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