Utton Center Ombudsman Program Contributes to Adjudication Process

Darcy BushnellWhat is an adjudication? That is a question Darcy Bushnell ('89) hears over and over in her job as director of the Joe M Stell Ombudsman Program at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center. The question comes typically from a private water rights claimant seeking to understand a packet of information received in the mail from the Office of the State Engineer.

Bushnell's job is to help people understand the cumbersome and necessary task of adjudications — determining who has what right to use the water in the State of New Mexico. She receives assistance from UNM law students and people who live in the area being adjudicated.

"The Legislature has tasked the state engineer with managing water so there is enough for today's population and future generations," says Bushnell. "In order to do that, the state needs to have an inventory of the state's water usage." The statutes require that the inventory is collected in a court proceeding called a water rights adjudication.

The ombudsman program was created in 2005 by the Legislature and Judge Jerald Valentine of the Third Judicial District to provide a neutral source of information and procedural guidance for water rights claimants involved in adjudications. The Utton Center at the UNM School of Law was chosen to house the program for its impartiality, involvement in collaborative programs and deep knowledge of water issues.

This program has been important, Bushnell says, for the service it provides to pro se claimants. "It gives them a resource for understanding what's happening so they can figure out what to do next and it provides people with information so they can make educated choices about their water rights in an adjudication.” No legal advice is given, only procedural information.

Before the Ombudsman Program was established, water rights claimants regularly called the courts and the state engineer with questions. Now these questions are directed to the ombudsman program where Bushnell can give the claimants a context and educate them as to the adjudication process.

In addition to being available on the ombudsman hotlines, she participates in community meetings and tries to contact people who have not responded to offers of judgment sent by the Office of the State Engineer. Last year alone, she estimates the program made contact with 3,000 people.

"It's hard to know what difference we are making, but people really appreciate us talking with them," she says.

Bushnell has been involved in some aspect of water law since earning her J.D. in 1989 from the University of New Mexico School of Law. With knowledge of nearly every water adjudication in the state, she can provide a unique context to the people she assists.

The ombudsman program is named for retired State Rep Joe M Stell from Carlsbad as a tribute to his years of service to the Legislature and his knowledge of New Mexico water issues.