Staff photo by Carol Keefer
Longtime rancher Henry Shill, well-known in the Camp Verde community, points to the 31-acre parcel involved in the latest SRP case.
Bob Kovacovich is a member of the Kovacovich Investment, Ltd., a party named in SRP's claim.
"They're trying to work ahead of the adjudication," Kovocavich maintains. "I think around 1962 or 1963, SRP sued my grandmother, because we were pumping water out of the ditch to property above the ditch on land cleared in the 1930s and farmed. They claimed that anything done after 1919 had no validity. We won in Prescott, but they appealed to Phoenix and won.
"It was our understanding, however, that we could drill a well and irrigate. Now they are coming back and saying we can't do that, either."
Those named in the injunction include:
1. Shields Ranch (Henry M. Shill, Don H. Shill) irrigation on 31 acres (Clear Creek).
2. Kovacovich Investment Ltd. Partnership, Wiertzema Family Trust, Jim and Linda Wyman, Myron Ray, First American Title Trust, using water on 133 acres (Middle Verde). Involves sales of parcels claiming water rights they do not have.
3. Linda S. and Paul R. Robinson and Chester Campbell, LLC, (Chester Newton Charter & Montesorri School) irrigating on 20 acres (near White Bridge).
4. NBJ Ranch, Ltd. Partnership, irrigating on 17 acres (Clear Creek).
5. Josephine Leslie and Verde River Ranch, LLC, using water on 68 acres (Clear Creek).
"The Court should not allow another 30 years to pass with the relative lack of progress that has taken place to date," states the 15-page document filed by SRP. "In addition to doing what it can to reasonably expedite the pace of this adjudication and to reach a final decree, the court should also allow parties to call the court's attention to particular circumstances requiring immediate injunctive relief against those parties who are wrongfully taking water to their detriment. The five OSC (orders to show cause) applications filed by SRP on this date should be the first of those such actions."
SRP's Dave Roberts, manager of water rights, and Jeff Lane, media official, agreed that this matter could be a test case. The petition to the court states that SRP and shareholders are senior to those of the five sets of water users addressed in the OSC applications.
The eventual conclusion of the larger adjudication case is expected to determine two things: the priority dates of claims and the amounts of water allocated under those claims.
Henry Shill, Shield Ranch owner, one of the named parties, said he was surprised to learn of SRP's most recent steps.
"I didn't know there was even a case going on until I talked to a Phoenix reporter," Shill said on Wednesday. "We'd filed a statement of claim on our water rights in 1978 during Arizona water rights registration. That's what everybody does. Eventually, these claims will be adjudicated. What they're trying to do now is to get an injunction to prevent us from irrigating on a parcel they claim is 31 acres. Some of this land they are talking about was used as a pasture, fenced and irrigated using tail water long before SRP existed."
Shill claims irrigation water rights altogether, he said, to about 136 acres of the 300-acre spread.
Historically, SRP filed lawsuits in State Superior Courts in several counties dating back as far as 1974, involving 50,000 plus defendants, many within the Verde Valley. Since then, the Supreme Court re-organized the various suits into one large lawsuit. Judge Edward Ballinger Jr., Maricopa County Superior Court judge, is currently presiding in this monumental Arizona case. The current and most recent five-claim case involving Verde Valley water users has also been submitted to Ballinger's court.
"They are bigger users than folks who refused to stop irrigating on what we believe is SRP shareholder's water, which, in essence, includes much of the water supply to the Phoenix area," Roberts explained.
SRP is asking the court for an immediate hearing on these five breakout cases.
On its latest move this week, Roberts said, "We're hoping the court will look at these situations and require these folks to obtain surface water rights. That's a state law process."
Roberts suggests that the owners purchase water rights somewhere else in the Verde Valley and transfer them to their property; it's called "Severance and Transfer," he explained. Roberts maintains that there are many valid water rights available throughout the Verde Valley, and that SRP is even willing to help the landowners identify them.
Roberts said he does not ever foresee SRP selling its water rights to Verde Valley users, however.
"The water rights here in the Phoenix area [Salt River Valley] are being used by municipal and domestic users, cities and land owners. It's their only water supply within the project area. They're not going to give up their water rights. It's too valuable to them," Roberts said.
Paul Robinson, a named party and owner of Robinson's Equipment Company near the White Bridge in Camp Verde, said he believes SRP is trying to pull out individual cases and set a precedent.
"We were approached about six months ago asking us to stop irrigating. They didn't say why, other than Phoenix needed water. I didn't know if we were talking about the Verde Ditch water or our two wells. I turned that matter over to John Reddell, who is the Verde Ditch boss. We own shares in that," Robinson said. "It would be smart of us all to get together and hire a water rights' attorney."
Another named party, incensed over SRP's inference that those named are stealing water unlawfully, retorted, "We need to look at who the real thieves are."