No end near after 4 decades of water rights litigation

The Colorado River is a major source of water for Arizona. The management of its supply involves numerous stakeholders and agencies. (Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project)

The Colorado River is a major source of water for Arizona. The management of its supply involves numerous stakeholders and agencies. /Photo courtesy of Central Arizona Project

After 44 years, the adjudication of water rights in Arizona is still far from being resolved, and water policy experts say that resolving these competing claims is essential to providing certainty about water rights.

Two general stream adjudications are currently underway that affect the most populous areas of the state: the Gila River Adjudication in the Maricopa County Superior Court and the Little Colorado River Adjudication in the Apache County Superior Court.  The proceedings’ goal is to establish the extent and priority of all water rights for both river systems.

The Gila River alone provides about 20 percent of Arizona’s water, while its tributaries, the Salt and Verde Rivers, provide nearly 40 percent of the water to the Phoenix area through the Salt River Project.

“As we get to this time in our state where we have less extra water … it’s really critically important that we have clarity and certainty about water rights,” said Sarah Porter, director of the ASU Kyl Center for Water Policy.

General stream adjudications are relatively common proceedings in Western states, and states such as Wyoming and Washington only resolved decades-old adjudications in the past five years. In Arizona, however, few cases have been resolved in the past four decades of proceedings, and there’s a lot of work still to be done: there are over 38,000 parties in the Gila Adjudication and over 5,800 parties in the Little Colorado Adjudication.

“A lot of moving slowly is a result of the court process itself and the due process rights of claimants,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Department of Water Resources. Nevertheless, “we need to move forward and get that adjudication toward the finish line in a somewhat timely manner.”

Some progress is being made. At the beginning of September in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Jeff Flake and Sen. John McCain introduced S.1770 to finalize the Hualapai Tribe’s water rights on the Gila River, and the bill has been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

Water policy experts emphasized that finally resolving the general stream adjudications will be an important step not just for water managers and water users, but also for business in Arizona.

Real estate agents, corporate site developers, and other economic decision makers “have zero tolerance for uncertainty about water rights,” Porter of ASU said.

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