EDITORIAL: State needs water courts

Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM), 2014-07-17


July 17 -- Federal District Court Judge Martha Vázquez has recused herself from concluding the Aamodt water-rights litigation -- her husband, Joseph Maestas , is now a city councilor in Santa Fe . By federal statute, Vázquez is no longer allowed to hear the case because her husband is an officer of the city of Santa Fe , a party to the lawsuit.

Those involved are bemoaning Vázquez's departure -- the judge was knowledgeable on the ins and outs of the complicated water case, which dates to 1966. Her recusal is yet another likely sticking point in finally winding up this contentious case.

The litigation, filed by the New Mexico state engineer to determine water rights of residents of the Pojoaque Valley , was complicated by the presence of four pueblos with their own water rights. Finally, a settlement was reached in 2006 among the pueblos, city and county of Santa Fe , as well as the state and federal government. Parties are working toward a final resolution, a process helped by Vázquez's institutional knowledge. She'd been on the case for more than a decade.

U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson has been appointed to take over -- and with 700 objections to the settlement, he's facing a steep learning curve ahead and a fast-approaching deadline. Congress , which approved the settlement in 2010, is requiring a final decree from the federal court by September 2017 . That includes settling all water claims in the Pojoaque Valley . Vázquez's loss, in this final stretch, will be felt.

Her departure also points out to a larger problem in New Mexico -- there are many water claims and cases that remain unresolved, and not enough judges with knowledge and time to hear the cases. The current adjudication for the San Juan basin, for example, has been going on since 1975 in District Court.

One idea floating around is to establish additional judgeships at the District Court level, while making hearing water cases a priority in those courts. A bill from the 2014 legislative session would have started setting up what essentially would be "water courts" in Doña Ana and San Juan counties, adding another judge in each county. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Steven Neville , R- Farmington , requires that, "the district water court shall be a civil court that shall hear all cases relating to water and other civil cases as well. The water court shall give priority to water cases." A version of the bill should be back in 2015.

Back in 2003, a New Mexico State Judiciary report recommended setting up a division of water courts. More than a decade ago, it was recognized that drought, water disputes with other states and growing demand for water made adjudicating water rights necessary -- of course, little has been done since.

Creating such courts -- at the cost, basically, of a new judge's salary -- would at last help New Mexico complete the unfinished task of adjudicating water rights and determining who actually has the water they think they own. (Judges also would be available to help on other civil cases.) While the State Engineer's Office is important in determining water policy, it is essential to get rights adjudicated, and the engineer's office lacks the resources to get the job done. Further, decisions from the engineer's office can be appealed to District Court, where the case is heard from the beginning. It makes sense to start in District Court.

More water is allocated than actually exists, most believe. New Mexicans need to know if their so-called water rights actually come with wet water. Vázquez's departure from the Aamodt case, while at the federal level, is a timely reminder that more judges need to know the ins and outs of water law. Water rights need to be settled, so that all parties know who owns what.

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