Federal Court victory for Community defense of its rights to Gila River
August 3, 2018
Communications & Public Affairs Office
Gila River Indian Community
In a major victory for the Community in its efforts to defend its rights to the waters of the Gila River, a federal court in Phoenix on Tuesday, July 17, 2018 ruled that long unused water rights on lands owned by the Freeport Minerals Corporation in the Upper Valley of the Gila River were forfeited and could no longer be considered available for future use because Arizona law requires that water rights must be put to beneficial use in a timely way.
The U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton granted summary judgment to the Gila River Indian Community, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and the United States on their request to declare forfeited water rights appurtenant to six parcels of land belonging to Freeport Minerals Corporation totaling approximately 28 acres. The water rights had gone unused for 25 years or more. Judge Bolton reasoned that although the Gila River’s movement overtaking the lands was beyond Freeport’s control, Freeport failed to transfer the water rights during the five-year statutory period to avoid forfeiture.
Judge Bolton rejected Freeport’s arguments that the failure to use or transfer the water rights was excused: “Having admitted to nonuse for more than five years and having failed to provide any evidence that its lands are only temporarily unsuitable for cultivation, Freeport has forfeited those rights.”
Judge Bolton’s ruling follows last year’s federal appeals court ruling that all Gila River water rights in Arizona are subject to the forfeiture statute, regardless of whether they were acquired before or after the 1919 Water Code was enacted. Both rulings arose out of test cases that were first filed in 2008.
Gila River Gov. Stephen R. Lewis hailed Tuesday’s ruling. “The Gila River Indian Community is gratified by Judge Bolton’s ruling. Over the centuries, the Pima and Maricopa peoples have always sought to protect and preserve the river, and to this day we continue to fight Upper Gila Valley water users’ ongoing theft and wastefulness of the Gila River. The standards set out in this ruling will help ensure that the waters of the Gila River are used efficiently and lawfully in the future.”