By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator
Stephanie Russo Baca is currently the staff attorney and Ombudsman Program Director at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center located at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In both of the roles that Russo Baca fulfills, her mission is to support and represent her constituents in a fair and unbiased manner. As the Ombudsman Program Director, Stephanie guides the activities of the Joe M. Stell Ombudsman Program, which is a statewide program that provides impartial adjudication information and procedural guidance to unrepresented water right claimants in the State of New Mexico. Stephanie specified that because the Utton Center is a neutral research and public service program funded through the State of New Mexico, she is able to engage and collaborate freely with both rural and urban communities including acequia associations, county and municipal governments, non-profits, federal and state governmental entities, non-governmental organizations, and New Mexico State Legislature. Russo Baca partners with local community leaders in order to provide the best guidance and research education possible to New Mexico citizens. This approach allows her to gauge community need, and help them to evaluate their own unique situation.
Stephanie earned her BA in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in Agroecology in 2007 from Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. She received her JD in 2017 from UNM’s School of Law in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and upon graduation received the Dean’s Award for her outstanding academic performance. She takes great pride in holding both Indian Law, and Natural Resources and Environmental Law Certificates from UNM.
During the early years of her working career, Stephanie held many distinguished positions including outreach coordinator and educator for Hawks Aloft, Inc. (2008), constituent liaison and district intern coordinator for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District of the U.S. House of Representatives (2009), and constituent services and field representative/statewide intern coordinator for U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (2013). She then became a research assistant for the Utton Center in 2015 where she had the opportunity to study abroad and explore Europe with UNM’s Madrid Summer Law Institute Program. Along with her research assistant duties, Stephanie also held a legal extern position for the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (2015) and then transitioned to a judicial clerk for the Pueblo of Isleta Appellate Court (2016). In 2017, she was given a paralegal position at the Utton Center, which led to a position with Barncastle Law Firm as an Associate Attorney from 2017 to 2018. Stephanie rejoined the staff in her current roles at the Utton Center in the fall of 2018, filling a position that was vacant for many years after the previous ombudsman retired. As a relatively new hire, she has been working to establish herself among the Utton Center staff as a knowledgeable resource by performing extensive outreach around New Mexico and gaining a positive reputation throughout local communities.
Recently, the Utton Center received a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation for a duration of five to six months to assist in discovering new information regarding the Taos Pueblo Water Rights Settlement. According to Russo Baca, this settlement was developed through multi-party negotiations beginning in 1989 between the vast majority of water users in the Taos Valley. These members consist of the Taos Pueblo, the State of New Mexico, the Taos Valley Acequia Association (made up of 55-member acequias), the Town of Taos, El Prado Water and Sanitation District, and the 12 Taos-area Mutual Domestic Water Consumer Associations to settle Taos Pueblo’s water rights claims to the Rio Hondo and Rio Pueblo de Taos stream systems. The funds received by the Utton Center through this grant will be used to develop an educational outreach program regarding the settlement process and provide community members with related resources, including but not limited to upgrading the rural water system as a cohesive community for conservation and water protection.
At the moment, Stephanie is working with her two research assistants, Sarah McLain and Ambrose Kupfer, on a research project funded by the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) on the HB 546 Fluid Oil & Gas Waste Act commonly known as the “Produced Water Act.” Stephanie states that their project entitled, Analysis of the Relationship between Current Regulatory and Legal Frameworks and the “Produced Water Act”, will analyze the current legal and regulatory frameworks of produced water management in the State of New Mexico, and focus on multifaceted regulation, including current federal laws and programs. The main objectives of their research will discuss the legal and regulatory aspects of produced water, such as ownership, water rights, liability, standard practices, and how the Produced Water Act affects current regulations. Russo Baca and her colleagues are also anticipating to include a review of what additional regulatory clarity may be required in order to beneficially reuse produced water.
Although the produced water research project initiates Stephanie’s involvement with NM WRRI, she wanted to recognize the established relationship between the Utton Center and the Institute. NM WRRI, through its Faculty Water Research Grant Program, has supported several water-related research projects led by Adrian Oglesby, who is the current director at the Utton Center. His final report was entitled, Water Resilience in a time of uncertainty. How Can Our Water Laws and Policies Better Support Water Resilience?, which identified law and policy options for best water management practices.
Russo Baca has contributed to UNM’S Tribal Law Journal as a credited staff member and editor, and has written articles for the Utton Center’s publication, Water Matters!. She also participates in several educational seminars to provide fundamental research information to the communities of New Mexico. She has presented on water law issues for Continuing Legal Education courses, and strives to provide exceptional services and instruction to all the people of New Mexico. Stephanie is an involved member of the Natural Resource and Environmental Law Program Committee at the UNM School of Law, and an active participant in the Rios Unidos Coalition provided through the Utton Center. She was additionally elected to the board of directors for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) in June 2019 as Director Position No.5 for Valencia County. The MRGCD has been considered to be the sister agency to the Elephant Butte Irrigation district, and is responsible for river flood control in the middle Rio Grande Valley. They encourage responsible water management, environment and wildlife protection, and cooperation opportunities with other local, state, and federal agencies. As a director, Stephanie actively makes policy decisions for the district and meets with her committee on a monthly basis.
When asked about upcoming goals, Stephanie states that she “would like to have a strong working relationship with all of the universities in New Mexico… [and] would like to be one of the go-to water law attorneys in the state to offer impartial legal information.”