Commentary: Let’s keep working; Court decision is not a stopping point
Verde Valley leaders including Yavapai-Apache Chairwoman, Jane Winiecki, and Verde Ditch Company commissioner, Al Dupuy, have expressed “mixed feelings” at the recent ruling of the Arizona Court of Appeals rejecting a Memorandum of Understanding agreement that would have helped resolve aspects of historic water use locally.
As Water Rights Manager at Salt River Project (SRP), I want to express my commitment to continuing the work we’ve undertaken – together.
The Appeals court ruling doesn’t tell us the work is not worthy, only that our approach needs to be ultimately resolved under the jurisdiction of the Adjudication court. So let’s step back and examine the process, and the options. There is real value in ‘water certainty.’ There is real value in ‘mutual understandings.’ There is also real value in collaboration. SRP is willing to work with local landowners to ensure these values are realized.
The issue is simple: every drop of water in the Verde River from normal and flood flows is “appropriated,” meaning that someone has claimed it for beneficial use. In fact, more water is claimed “on paper” than is flowing in the river.
Throughout Arizona, water is deemed “appurtenant to” (belonging to) the land it serves. Early settlers to the Verde Valley essentially allocated surface water for the purpose of irrigating crops and raising livestock. These early claims known as “first-in-time, first-in-right” established the baseline of historic water use.
Even as decades of growth and development dominate the Verde Valley, senior water users continued to have priority right to use water on specific parcels of land originally designated. But as farms and ranches were sold, traded, gifted, passed through inheritance, subdivided, or any other lawful means of title transfer, the historic patterns of water use were sometimes altered to best serve current needs, with little or no regard to Arizona water law and the growing conflict among users.
Ultimately, the rights to use water in the Verde Valley will be determined in a court case known as the Gila River General Stream Adjudication. The completion of the Adjudication has been lengthy for a variety of reasons but it is necessary to provide water right certainty throughout the Gila River system.
The length of the case has been an impediment to long-term planning for water managers at the individual, organizational, and municipal level. Every Verde Valley community experiences the conflict.
To provide progress, SRP is seeking agreement with local landowners on the Verde Ditch that will help alleviate the log-jam when the Adjudication finally arrives in the Verde Valley. That’s where our work in now focused, and must continue.
SRP has been using current mapping technology to document and confirm historic water use in the Verde Ditch Company service area. We have worked cooperatively with the Verde Ditch Commissioners appointed by Yavapai County Superior Court along the way. The process is based upon mutual respect, and as noted by Al Dupuy, the good work continues. The recent decision by the Appeals court simply clarified how we need to proceed, and that SRP’s work needs to be focused with the landowners, while ditch operations are the focus of the Verde Ditch Commissioners.
SRP’s resolve to move forward in a process that will provide economic benefit for current and future real estate transactions, and to generate access and opportunity for resolving longstanding conflicts is undeterred. Over the next several months you will be hearing more about those plans.
Greg Kornrumph is Water Rights Manager at Salt River Project, a Board member of Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization, and an Alumna of Arizona Project CENTRL Class XX. He participates regularly in matters of economic importance in the Verde Valley, staunchly advocating for the rights of senior water users and the health of the Verde River. Greg is a recipient of the Civic Award from the Verde River Citizens Alliance for his service to the public regarding water issues.