Santa Fe County Commissioners on Tuesday took the next step toward construction of a regional water system serving the northern part of the county as part of the Aamodt water-rights settlement.
The commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of a resolution that approves an amended Aamodt settlement and directs staff to create a cost-sharing agreement for the county's portion of building a regional water system -- at least $7.4 million. The proposed water utility would be operated jointly by the pueblos and the county.
The Aamodt lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in 1966 to resolve the water rights of four pueblos and the nonpueblo well users and irrigators in the Nambé-Tesuque-Pojoaque basin, also called the Pojoaque Valley. "Tribes don't look at this as just an Indian issue," Tesuque Pueblo Gov. Charles Dorame told the commissioners. "This is about the future of all our children and our children's children. If we don't do something now to drastically reduce the number of straws going into the earth and [taking water], we're all going to be in trouble."
The design and construction of the regional water system, including a river-diversion project and pipelines to serve dozens of communities around the valley, will cost an estimated $200 million. The federal and state governments will pick up most of the tab.
The state will spend at least $45 million to design and build the facility and another $4 million to help Pojoaque Valley residents opt for water service.
The resolution also directs staff to alert county residents that the water utility is in the works and how much it will cost to connect. Thousands of Pojoaque Valley residents already must decide whether to agree to the Aamodt settlement and what that means for their individual wells.
The commission heard testimony about Aamodt, the water utility and water rights for almost two hours before making a decision. The governors of Tesuque Pueblo and Nambe Pueblo, along with representatives from acequias and domestic well associations, urged the commission to approve the resolution.
Even those who've had deep misgivings about the settlement and oppose the regional water system believe the resolutions will help them get some answers. "We have been asking questions since 2006 that the county hasn't answered about the water utility system," said John Gutting, board member of the Pojoaque Basin Water Alliance. "What are the true costs? What is the real number of customers and where are they located?"
And will the county ever be able to operate such a system in the black, Gutting asked.
Commissioner Robert Anaya voted against the resolution, saying it was too important to the county to rush a decision. "This is a huge issue," he said. "It affects everyone in the valley. It will affect the county's budget."
The state, pueblos and federal government reached a settlement in 2006 that was approved, with amendments, in 2010.
John Utton, who has represented Santa Fe County in the case for the last decade, said the case has involved some of the most contentious water issues in the United States.
A regional water system that will divert water from the Rio Grande to serve pueblo and nonpueblo residents is a key component of the settlement. The county originally approved the settlement in 2006, but must approve incremental steps now in the design, construction and management of the water system. The county will have the right to decide how large the utility will be -- up to 1,500 acre-feet of water a year -- to serve nonpueblo residents. (One acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons.)
A total of 2,500 acre-feet of "new" water will be available to the valley under the Aamodt settlement. Hundreds of those water rights belong to the county and are linked to a property known as Top of the World Farm in northern Taos County.
The region has relied on the narrow Nambé, Tesuque and Pojoaque rivers plus underground aquifers for water. Under state law, the pueblos have the oldest right to water in the valley, followed by irrigators and then domestic well owners. The pueblos have the right to curtail other water users during drought. The settlement is supposed to protect all of the water users.
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