LISTEN: Buyer Beware -- You may own the land, but do you also own the water?
Linda Buchanan bought her first piece of property in Camp Verde in 1981. She was young and the area was new to her. She didn’t know what she didn’t know.
“I relied heavily on what the seller and the real estate agent told me about the property,” she said.
Visually, the property looked irrigated for quite some time, she said. But she would later come to find out that she didn’t have the water rights to the property after all.
Buchanan said she doesn’t consider herself a water rights expert – and “no one should.” But she said she has been “stretching” her knowledge on the issue since 1981.
“I began educating myself about the framework that goes with the water rights,” she said. “I know a lot more about it now than I did 10 years ago … it’s easy to make assumptions about what you see on the property.”
Over the past three decades, Buchanan has continued to buy and sell properties in the Camp Verde area. She said in many cases, these properties did not have the historic water use even though she was paying water ditch dues.
According to Lucas Shaw, water rights analyst for the Salt River Project, historic water uses are those on lands where there is documentation showing there was water use on that land prior to 1919.
“Prior to 1919, water users generally only had to provide written notice of their new water uses, then they could begin using water,” he wrote in an emailed interview with The Verde Independent. “Arizona’s Water Code, passed in 1919, is a state law that requires water users to apply and receive a permit for new or expanded water uses. If there is no evidence of historic (pre-1919) water use on lands, it is believed that the water use began after 1919 and are subject to the Arizona Water Code.”
Shaw said SRP’s recorded Historic Water Rights Agreements for individual properties may give buyers “some peace of mind.”
“SRP, the largest water user on the Verde River, recognizes their area of water use for that property,” he said. “That’s not to say someone else won’t challenge it, just not SRP.”
Claims to water throughout the Verde Valley exceed the supply; hence ongoing conflicts relating to these rights.
“I’ve seen those situations become really complex, challenging, they’re frustrating, expensive, time-consuming,” Buchanan said. “They sometimes pin neighbors against each other.”
About 10 years ago, Buchanan said she started to pay closer attention to the local “folklore” around water rights and water management – particularly the use of the term “grandfathered rights.”
“(The term) has perpetuated a general lack of understanding, or in some cases, outright confusion,” she said.
Dan Mabery, broker at ColdwellBanker- Mabery Real Estate since 1971, said realtors shouldn’t take the sellers’ word as gospel when it comes to water rights because sometimes their idea of what their rights are may not be accurate.
“I think, and the best realtors will tell their clients, that the water rights in most of the state of Arizona and in the Verde Valley have not yet been adjudicated,” he said. “Until they are, nobody will know what their rights are.”
But the onus is not on the realtor to investigate the history of a property’s water rights, Mabery said. Realtors can only reveal everything they know.
“You give whoever you are representing the best knowledge that you have,” he said. “They should seek legal representation if this is an issue with them.”
Education is essential
For Buchanan, education is key.
“I know in my own case, when I have known better I have done better,” she said.”
Buchanan said with future developments happening in Verde Valley, water rights issues are something the community as a whole should take a look at as a grassroots initiative.
“The more active we are in curtailing the expansion or the perpetuation of misunderstanding, the better we’ll be,” she said.