Gila adjudication lawsuit negotiates nearly 60,000 competing water rights claims
May 21, 2018
The Morrison Institute’s Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU has been working to resolve the Gila adjudication by presenting creative solutions to increase the amount of settlements and describe what business and industry look for when they consider investing in sites in Arizona.
The Gila adjudication, which began in 1974, includes the water rights to pump and divert water not only from the Gila River but all of its tributaries as well. It started as a fight over surface water rights that include taking water from streams and rivers. It evolved to include subflow zones, which are areas where a well is pumping water that would otherwise make its way to a river.
“It might be the most complicated court case in history,” Director of the Kyl Center Sarah Porter says. “I think that very complication is one of the reasons why it’s not very well known, not nearly as well known as it should be.”
The adjudication currently has 57,000 claims made by over 32,000 parties. The majority of the claims, Porter says, are people claiming relatively small amounts of water. Federal rights over water for national monuments, tribes, mining companies, farmers, ranchers, cities and towns are also covered by the adjudication.
The current rule for surface water is based on a doctrine called prior appropriation, which translates to first come, first served. Created during the gold rush days, the first person to come and divert water from a stream or river has a senior right compared to a later comer. During a shortage, it’s important to know who’s first in line if there’s not enough water for everyone who wants it.
“We have a different way of regulating ground water in Arizona,” Porter says. “Outside of our active management areas, you can drill a well anywhere for beneficial use, except for these subflow zones. In this adjudication, the court has said that wells that are in the subflow zone are going to be treated as if they are drawing surface water. They will need to get in line for a surface water right as if they were diverting water straight from the stream.”
A possible resolution could include wells being shut off, meaning some people might no longer have access to water and some development plans could be canceled. The Kyl Center is working with water experts and lawyers who represent parties in the adjudication to avoid that outcome.
“New wells are still being drilled,” Porter says. “I think that’s the most troubling fact of the adjudication. It was filed 44 years ago in 1974… Between 1974 and today we’ve seen the number of wells in the Verde Valley, which is one of the hot spots for this issue, about tripled. The other big hot spot for this issue, the Sierra Vista area, the number of wells is more than five times [higher] than in 1974.”
The Kyl Center’s mission is to highlight creative solutions to the adjudication that will hopefully result in an increase in settlements. Porter says a report will be coming out that includes a solution set of ideas.