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State Supreme Court: Arizona has no right for water on trust land

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PHOENIX – Settling a decades-old battle, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that millions of acres of state trust land in Arizona have no federally reserved water rights.

The court’s decision rejected the State Land Department’s claim that the federal government granted reserved water rights to trust land transferred to Arizona upon statehood.

State officials argued that the designation would maximize the value of the trust land, which is leased and sold to benefit public schools and institutions. Federal reserved water rights are considered senior to other claims and agreements.

The case decided Wednesday involved allocations of water in the Gila and Little Colorado River systems, in which the Land Department manages approximately 6.5 million acres of trust land.

Those opposed to the department’s claim included the mining firm ASARCO, Catalyst Paper Inc. of Snowflake, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association.

To date, more than 14,000 and 82,000 claims have been made in the Little Colorado and Gila River adjudications, respectively, according to the court’s opinion.

In an opinion written by Arizona Supreme Court Justice A. John Pelander the court said, among other points, that the state didn’t prove that without the reserved water rights “the State Trust Lands will become worthless or incapable of producing a fund to support their designated beneficiaries.” Even without these rights, the opinion noted, the Land Department has produced revenue for a century.

Dave Roberts, SRP’s water resource management senior director, said it was never the federal government’s intent to reserve water for state trust land. The decision, he said, protects users relying on the agreements allocating water.

“The opposite decisions could have thrown a huge monkey wrench into the state’s water-allocation process and raised still more uncertainty for water users,” Roberts said.

Deputy State Land Commissioner Vanessa Hickman called the ruling disappointing.

“We were hopeful the court would find that the State Trust Lands had federally reserved water rights that could increase the value of their revenue for our beneficiaries,” she said.

Hickman said the department is still seeking to ensure surface-water rights on the 9.2 million acres of state trust land it manages.

In a similar case, the New Mexico Court of Appeals in 2008 rejected claims made by New Mexico’s State Land Office that nearly 300,000 acres of trust land in the San Juan River Basin were granted reserved water rights by the federal government.