Salt River Project Wants Water From Verde Valley Wells For Phoenix: Who Is Stealing Water From Whom?

by Blue Evening Star

Water rights issues in the Verde Valley are being brought to a head by 5 test cases instigated by the Salt River Project (SRP) against Verde Valley landowners. The SRP filed 5 claims against 12 Verde Valley landowners on April 26, 2004, attempting to "reasonably expedite the pace of the adjudication and to reach a final decree" regarding surface water rights in the Verde Valley.

Thirty years ago, the SRP filed lawsuits asking the courts to determine the water rights for the use of surface water in the Gila River System, including the Verde River and its tributaries. There are two issues at stake in this water adjudication. These are the priority dates of claims and the amounts of water allocated under those claims. The wells to be adjudicated are ones that draw water from the saturated floodplain Holocene alluvium, which is generally the sand and gravel areas along streams, also known as sub-flow. Additionally, wells which are determined to be drawing water from the surface as established in the "cone of depression" test will also be subjected to the adjudication.
The legal argument boils down to: who can establish "prior appropriation" rights to the water. But the decades-long legal battle does not take into account common sense factors such as the reality of water available for all who need it, including one of the fastest growing cities in the country, Phoenix, Arizona—a city masquerading as a water park in the arid Sonoran desert. While some of the districts of Phoenix practice water conservation, the majority of them do not.

Families and businesses in the Verde Valley involved in SRP's latest legal move to secure water from the Verde Valley for the sprawling, water-guzzling Phoenix metropolis are not going to submit easily to having their wells capped off so that SRP can continue providing water to Central Arizona. Nor will they easily agree to start paying for surface water rights to continue using the wells their great-grandfathers dug. Ever read the book or seen the movie The Milagro Beanfield War?

Following on the heels of SRP's filing its "show cause/injunction" on April 26, 2004 to stop 12 Verde Valley landowners from using what SRP maintains is their water, the City of Phoenix submitted a joiner (join in the cause) in Maricopa County Superior Court.
A May 9, 2004 memorandum by Assistant City Attorney James Callahan states that: "Phoenix fully supports SRP's effort to engage this court in taking immediate action to stop ongoing violations of Arizona's surface water appropriate statutes. In its memorandum, SRP highlights the priority of its shareholder's appropriative rights. Phoenix too has certified appropriative rights on the Verde River that also predates most of the surface water users asserted by several parties against whom SRP seeks relief".

What to do? Any property owner in the Verde Valley with a well is advised to join the Verde Valley Water Users Association. The VVWU is the only organization in the Verde Valley solely dedicated to protecting the rights of small water users. Without the financial support of the thousands of well owners and surface water users in the Verde Valley, the VVWU will not be able to continue the fight. The VVWU's attorney has an appointment in the trial court's litigation steering committee, which for nearly 30 years has been working to determine the water rights for users of surface water in the Gila River System, in response to the lawsuits filed by the SRP.

Verde Valley Water Users can be reached at (928) 567-3119 or www.verdevalleywaterusers.org


SRP: What is it? Who does it Serve?

Following in the footsteps of the indigenous inhabitants of ancient Arizona, the Salt River Valley Water Users' Association was formed in February 1903 to manage the flow of what according to Salt River Project (SRP) historian Ken Evans "could be a rushing river the size of the Colorado, and in the same year could literally disappear, leaving only a dry river bed." The plan to accomplish this is called the Salt River Project.

The original architects of a complex, gravity-based canal system that stretched from Tucson to Flagstaff were the Hohokam who settled in Arizona around 300 B.C. The descendants of the Hohokam, Arizona's Pima-speaking tribes, started extending the water delivery system for centuries beginning in the 1400s. Various Valley dwellers in the late 1800s developed the ancient Hohokam canals into what eventually became the 47-mile-long Arizona Canal.

But the canal system was no match for the alternate flooding and drought conditions of the Salt River. It was not until construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, 60 miles east of Phoenix, that dwellers of the Valley could assure economic and environmental stability for the growing population of Central Arizona. Water is life, and the special interests of the needs for water in the Phoenix area are safe-guarded by the Salt River Project, who now administers water rights in a 240,000-acre area.

SRP has long been enmeshed in environmental issues in the Four Corners region involving pollution from the SRP operated coal-fired Navaho Generating Station near Black Mesa and their more recent plans to build another coal-fired station near Fence Lake in northwestern New Mexico, fueled by a coal mine that would destroy sacred Native American sites like Zuni Salt Lake, sacred to Zuni, Apache, Laguna Acoma, Hopi, and Navajo tribes.