Mon, Dec. 09

Water: The Battle is coming

Staff photo by Carol Keefer

STATE Rep. Tom O'Halleran was among those listening to the latest on the long-standing adjudication process.

"The battle is coming," he cautioned an audience of about 100, who were in the Mingus Union High School auditorium to learn the latest on Salt River Project's (SRP) march toward a larger water interest in the Verde Valley.

Plain and simple, Phoenix wants more water for its exploding growth, according to Mabery, and is looking to northern waters.

Mabery is legal counsel for the Verde Valley Water Users Inc., a vigilant watchdog group formed in the 1980s. As a collective unit, it is fighting to protect Verde Valley water rights.

Legal proceedings started in 1974 when SRP filed a petition to determine water rights in the Salt River above the Granite Reef Diversion Dam, excluding the Verde River. Two years later, they were back, filing for Verde River rights.

The logic? The Verde River flows into the Salt River, and the Salt River flows into the Gila River. It's all about prior surface water claims, "first in time, first in right," Mabery said. "Unless you have a prior surface right, they can shut you down. Watersheds are linked. Someone in Yuma could have a prior right."

Because several others joined the legal fight posturing various stances, the Arizona Supreme Court, in 1981, consolidated all the water-related cases involving the Gila River, and those rivers that flow into it, into what Mabery defined as "one mammoth case" moving it to the Maricopa Superior Court. Although it's been dragging on for about 30 years, the case continues to move forward. Mabery strongly suggests that Verde Valley residents "recognize what's coming" saying the case is bound to have "dramatic affects."

The general stream adjudication is known as, "The General Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Gila River System and Source."

Because of this and the adjudication of the Little Colorado, Mabery maintains that two-thirds of Arizona is wrapped up in the adjudication process, making it the largest issue of its kind in U.S. history. He said that 86,000 claimants have now filed in both cases.

The boundaries in question are not just visible surface water (rivers and streams) either, he cautioned. The courts have since redefined the boundaries, and claimants can now include well users tapping into or intercepting the saturated floodplain of the Holocene alluvium.

"We don't know the answers yet for the parameters of the Holocene alluvium," he admitted.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) will determine where the floodplain is located and how deep. Currently studies are being conducted in the San Pedro watershed in Southern Arizona; next comes the Verde River Basin because of Yavapai County's rapid growth.

He said it's possible to be far away from the river and still be involved and in jeopardy.

"In San Pedro," he said, "there are wells next to the river that are not part of the alluvium but some miles away they are."

Mabery cautioned that there may be potential claimants out there who should file, maintaining it's not too late:

• New property owners unaware of the pending adjudication, who should have transferred their claimant filings, but did not

• Those who chose not to file, because they thought they were pumping only ground water, and that filing was not necessary

• Those who filed initially, but because the courts have redefined "what surface water is" may need to amend their claims

Exceptions could include a well that has de minimis effect meaning little or no effect on the river's flow.

According to President Ray Wrobley of the VVWU, the group has been lucky to retain Phil Briggs as its expert hydrologist. He is testifying and acting as consultant for the group.

Chris Garrett with SWCA Environmental Consultants, along with Briggs, is creating a database that will provide reports on Verde Valley wells, hydrology and the adjudication available for purchase at the end of April. The VVWU is also investigating financing of a well-and-ditch monitoring program.

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