Sen. Steven P. Neville, R-Aztec
Sen. Steven P. Neville, R-Aztec (Courtesy of New Mexico Legislature)

FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Supreme Court on Tuesday announced it won't hear a lawsuit challenging the Navajo Nation water rights settlement, and now the case will go before the state court of appeals.

The lawsuit filed in mid-May asked the Supreme Court to cancel the settlement and allow the New Mexico Legislature to vet it, which the lawsuit says is required in the state constitution. The settlement, according to the lawsuit, never received legislative approval because former Gov. Bill Richardson in December 2010, just before leaving office, signed the compact with the Navajo Nation and federal government without any review.

State Engineer Scott Verhines, in a late May supreme court filing, asked that the lawsuit be denied and the matter handled by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

Rep. Paul C. Bandy, R-Aztec
Rep. Paul C. Bandy, R-Aztec (Courtesy of New Mexico Legislature)

A response to questions submitted by email to the State Engineer's office had not been received Wednesday by the deadline for this story.

"If New Mexico were to negotiate with Texas, any agreement would have gone to the Legislature," said Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, adding that the Navajo reservation is a sovereign nation, and the same rules apply.

The settlement allows the reservation to pull more than 600,000 acre-feet of water each year from the San Juan River.

Neville is among the lawsuit's four plaintiffs. The three others are Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec; Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe; and Jim Rogers, the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association's secretary-treasurer. The association represents irrigators with water rights in San Juan County.

Neville said the Supreme Court could still rule on the lawsuit, but that could take three to five years if they must wait for the regular appeal process.

In the mean time, he said, money will be spent and decisions will be made that the Legislature could have influenced.

"Literally, it's millions of dollars," he said, "so it's not small change."

Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe
Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe (Courtesy of New Mexico Legislature)

One complicating factor is priority dates, which determine what communities or users are entitled to water in times of drought, he said. Long-time users precede newer users when water is scarce. If that much water is drawn by the Nation in a dry year, local water users could find themselves with no water.

Not only are water rights of San Juan County irrigators and land owners at stake, he said, but also the rights of communities that pull water from the San Juan-Chama Project, a diversion dam that sends water to Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

"There's a lot of reasons our irrigators, our land owners here are concerned about their water," he said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.