It's not often the someone can make a ruling whose impact is still felt 100 years later. But a now-obscure territorial judge in Arizona accomplished just that. Monday is the 100th anniversary of the Kent Decree, a legal decision that still affects water law and development in the Salt River Valley.
The decree issued on March 1, 1910, stipulated how much Salt River water each land owner in the Valley was entitled to receive, and it governs how Salt River Project administers water deliveries today.
Also by establishing the legal certainty of water supplies, the opinion set the stage for the economic development of the Valley, which continues today, said SRP historian Shelly Dudley.
The ruling is named for Judge Edward H. Kent of the District Court of the Territory of Arizona, who took nearly three years of testimony and spent about five years gathering and studying evidence before issuing his landmark decision.
The decree resolved disputes among landowners over rights to the water in the Salt River, which clogged the territorial courts of that time. Also it affirmed the doctrine that the first people to use water beneficially on the land had the priority rights to that water. And it set the stage for the federal government to finance construction of Theodore Roosevelt Dam and reservoir northeast of Mesa.
"Earlier decrees only divided the water for particular areas served by certain canal systems," Dudley said. "This was problematic because the lawsuits only established the respective water rights of individual plaintiffs and defendants in a case, without regard to the rights of all the other water users in the Valley."
To end this piecemeal approach, the U.S. Reclamation Service urged the Salt River Valley Water Users' Association to initiate a "friendly" lawsuit among its members to settle all of the pending water-rights disputes.
Filed in 1905, the suit called Patrick T. Hurley vs. Charles F. Abbott and 4,800 Others was considered essential by the federal government before it would lend money to build dams on the Salt River. The government wanted to know how much water the association had a right to store behind Roosevelt Dam, which was already under construction at the time, and how to distribute that water to Valley lands, Dudley said.
In fact, the reclamation service decreed that settlement of the water-rights issues had to be accomplished before the dam could be completed.
The lawsuit generated controversy because the case figured to be complicated, expensive and drawn out, Dudley said. But when the federal government entered the suit on behalf of the Salt River and Fort McDowell Indian communities, the case moved forward. Eventually all Valley interests came together, including farmers, cities, Native American communities, businesses, canal companies and the federal government to reach the agreement, she said.
After the decree was issued, Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911 and Arizona was granted statehood in 1912.
As SRP negotiates with other entities over water-rights issues, it still uses the Kent Decree as the basis for affirming its stakeholders' rights to the water of the Salt and Verde rivers, Dudley said.