Powers of all Three Branches at Issue in Navajo Water Settlement

Three members of the New Mexico Legislature filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of a settlement allocating a discrete amount of water from the San Juan River to the Navajo Indian nation. Back in 1948 a compact between the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming apportioned a large volume of water to New Mexico in recognition of the great need of the Navajo Indians in the state for the resource. Despite the compact’s directives, the Navajo never received the water promised under the deal – until recently.

During the administration of New Mexico’s previous governor, Bill Richardson, a settlement of a lawsuit to enforce the provisions of the Compact relating to the Navajos’ entitlement to water from the San Juan River established that the Indian Nation would receive an additional 130,000 acre-feet of water for farming above and beyond the 195,400 acre-feet used by the Navajos in New Mexico. Last August, a district court judge in San Juan County approved the settlement setting the path for the new allocation. But the same attorney, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the state legislators, filed an appeal of that decision. No ruling has been made yet on that appeal.

At issue in both the new suit and the appeal is the question of which branch of government has the authority to enter in to and implement such a water distribution plan. Particularly as the Legislature appropriates spending in the state, the new civil action alleges that body must approve the plan as it must approve funding for its implementation. But, speaking as chief counsel for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, Amy Haas has claimed that the deal is not a compact but a settlement of water rights litigation. To the extent that the state’s Attorney General authorized the settlement, Haas argues, the agreement possesses valid legal authority. The new suit will test whether the chief law enforcement officer in the state does hold such power just as the appeal of the Judge’s order in the San Juan County case questions that judicial officer’s power. As the State Constitution expressly addresses water rights and recent droughts in the region heighten tension among various communities over water distribution, the eventual outcome will both delineate the scope of power of each of the three branches (Executive, Legislative and Judicial) and reconcile an important and controversial recurring issue.

For advice on land use, water rights or farming matters before making any purchase or transaction, contact the attorneys at Giddens & Gatton Law, P.C. 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 should you have any questions concerning the use of any land for farming or other purposes.