Water rights case suffers long drought - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Water rights case suffers long drought

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Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004 7:12 am | Updated: 6:22 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Is someone stealing your water?

Salt River Project thinks so, and they want it stopped. Now.

Actually, SRP wanted it stopped 30 years ago. But the evolution of water law in the West is measured in decades, not days.

Water law grows and changes at the approximate rate a river cuts a canyon through our desert landscape. Some things can’t be rushed.

Still, SRP is getting testy over the seeming eons it is taking to address its complaint that landholders east of Prescott are illegally siphoning millions of gallons of Verde River water.

SRP is the East Valley’s chief supplier of water, drawing from two reservoirs on the Verde River and four on the Salt River. Some land in SRP’s service area has rights to Verde water that go back to 1869, rights that take priority over those of more recently settled land in the fastgrowing Verde Valley.

SRP began legal proceedings to protect its share of the Verde in 1974. On April 26, the 30th anniversary of its original filing, it petitioned Maricopa County Superior Court, again seeking relief and taking pains to point how how long ago 1974 really was.

"The nation was in the midst of the Watergate scandal," the SRP brief says, "and Richard Nixon was still president . . . The top album of the year was the soundtrack from ‘American Graffiti’ and Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run that summer . . ."

More ominously, SRP notes, the population of Phoenix was only 600,000. Now Phoenix has more than doubled in size and the thirsty East Valley has grown even faster.

Further, SRP’s brief says, "Central Arizona is now mired in a long-term drought of historic proportions."

The combination of growth and drought means the unauthorized withdrawals are "starting to be a problem," said Dave Roberts, SRP’s manager of water rights and contracts.

Roberts said the Verde River dispute is just a fractional part of a mammoth case involving some 65,000 to 70,000 water rights claimants. Ju risdictional disputes, appeals, technical wrangling and governmental budget shortfalls have extended the case interminably.

Tempe and the Roosevelt Water Conservation District, which operates wells in Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa, recently joined SRP in asking the court to speed things along, and a hearing is scheduled for July 1. But that’s just a hearing to talk about having more hearings in a case SRP admits could last another 30 years.

Even this litigation, by the way, may be just a drop in the desert compared with some of the water battles many officials consider likely as the West becomes more populous and more parched.

Our days of taking this lifegiving fluid for granted may be gone long before those 30 more years have passed.

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