Daily Sun: Solving the water rights issue

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Arizona Daily Sun reported residents in the Fort Valley area received letters from the Arizona Department of Water Resources that spurred widespread concern among those who have wells and pump groundwater. It’s the latest chapter in a long-running process to adjudicate surface water rights in the Little Colorado River basin that hashes out the priority of each water user and the amount they are entitled to. It included notification that a hydrographic study of the Hopi Tribe’s water claims was finished, determining the volume of water the tribe is entitled to.

It's a tricky task to figure out the area in each basin where groundwater pumping is connected to surface water flows, water experts said.

“It’s literally drawing a line in the sand between groundwater and surface water. It is such an impossible line to draw and that is what drags the process on,” said Rhett Larson, a senior research fellow at ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy (at Morrison Institute). “If pumping that groundwater could affect any part of a river system then it could conceivably, debatably be brought into the adjudication.”

A similar process is happening in the Gila River basin. Together, the adjudications cover water users in about two-thirds of the state and have been going for four decades, making them the longest-running litigations in the state’s history, said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center.

While an enormous task, resolving the claims is fundamental to the state’s ability to effectively plan for the future, Porter said.

“It’s clearly not a simple problem to solve the water rights at issue,” Porter said. “They are people’s livelihoods and lives. It’s a very sensitive and serious thing to be talking about the prioritization and quantification of water.”

A resolution will likely mean some parties won’t have enough water to support future development and growth plans without augmenting their supplies, while other users may be told they don’t have the right to water they thought they had been using legally for years, she said.

Flagstaff, located in the Little Colorado River basin, got involved in the adjudication process in the mid-1990s. Since then, the city has reached water rights settlements with the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and has participated in negotiations to reach a water settlement with the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

READ: Little Colorado River fight hits home