State Can't Claim Water Rights

Sep 12, 2012

The state Supreme Court today rebuffed efforts by the state to lay claim to water rights tied to its 9 million acres of trust land. 

When Arizona became a state, it got nearly 11 million acres of land from the federal government. About 9 million acres are left. Proceeds from the lease and sale of these trust lands are earmarked for public education and other special uses. Attorneys for Arizona argued that grant also came with reserved water rights -- rights that would supersede others who have since made use of the water from rivers and streams. University of Arizona Professor Robert Glennon said it was a bold argument.

"I mean, they want water kind of retroactively for nine million acres of land," Glennon said. "Just think about how disruptive that would be, Howie, both to claims of some tribes and also to the existing cities and farms and mines that are using water."

The justices rejected the claim. They said it was never the intent of Congress, in giving Arizona all that land, to also convey the reserved water rights. Glennon told Arizona Public Radio a contrary ruling would have caused havoc.

"There wouldn't have been much left," he said. "When you start to talk about 9 million acres and you have water for it, that's a heck of a lot of water."

Justice John Pelander, writing for the court, acknowledged that the land, without water, may not be worth much. But he said that's why Congress doubled the amount of property it gave the state.