New Mexico state Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat, announces a lawsuit filed on Wednesday May 14, 2014, in the state Supreme Court in Santa Fe, N.M., seeking to nullify a settlement between New Mexico, the federal government and the Navajo Nation over tribal rights to water in the San Juan River. Trujillo brought the lawsuit along with two Republican legislators and a farmer from northwestern New Mexico. (AP Photo/Barry Massey)
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A bipartisan group of legislators and a northwestern New Mexico farmer asked the state’s highest court on Wednesday to nullify an agreement between the state, the federal government and the Navajo Nation settling tribal rights to water from the San Juan River.
The lawsuit contends the governor can’t unilaterally bind New Mexico to the deal and the settlement must be approved by the Legislature to take effect.
The San Juan is drought-plagued New Mexico’s largest river by volume and a major tributary of the Colorado River, which supplies water for many Western residents.
The state Supreme Court was asked to invalidate the settlement and order the state to submit any proposed Navajo water deal to the Legislature for its rejection or approval, including allowing lawmakers to make possible amendments.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson signed the settlement in 2010. A state district court approved the settlement in 2013, but non-Indian irrigators have appealed the decision.
Three legislators — two Republicans and a Democrat — along with irrigator Jim Rogers of Waterflow, New Mexico, brought a separate challenge to the settlement by suing the state’s water agencies.
Lela Hunt, a spokeswoman for the State Engineer’s Office, said the Legislature has “actively supported” the settlement by approving money to help pay for a required water supply project.
The Navajo Nation was not named as a defendant, but it objected to the lawsuit.
“The Nation will vigorously oppose any challenge to the validity of the settlement or the water rights decreed to the Nation by the district court,” Stanley Pollack, a water rights lawyer for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, said in an email statement.
The Supreme Court took no immediate action on the case. The five justices could decline to consider the case or could schedule a hearing and issue a decision later.
The lawsuit likened the water deal to a tribal-state compact, which the Supreme Court has said must be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor. The court made that finding in a 1995 tribal-state gambling dispute.
Rep. Carl Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat who helped bring the lawsuit, said the Legislature needed to vet the settlement, which calls for a pipeline to supply water for Navajos and parts of western New Mexico and will require the state and federal government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Let’s take a step back, let’s make sure this is right for New Mexico, what’s been committed here,” Trujillo said at a news conference.
Trujillo said he’s uncertain whether the settlement benefits residents in his area and the rest of New Mexico.
Also bringing the lawsuit were New Mexico Republican Sen. Steven Neville of Farmington and GOP Rep. Paul Bandy of Aztec.
The San Juan River starts in the southern Rocky Mountains and cuts across northwestern New Mexico, including the Navajo reservation. The cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, although hundreds of miles from the river, are entitled to some San Juan water through a diversion project. Water from San Juan tributaries is moved across the mountains to the Rio Grande Basin.
Critics contend the settlement shortchanges non-Indian water users, but state water officials maintain it benefits New Mexico by avoiding a lengthy and costly court fight that could have ended with the Navajos winning the rights to even larger amounts of San Juan water.