Mohave, La Paz feel left out of water compact

KINGMAN - Mohave County leaders didn't mince words Wednesday about a group of legislators who brokered a water settlement between the Hualapai Indian tribe and Freeport McMoRan, a large mining company in Phoenix.

The Mohave County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to oppose the Bill Williams River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2014, saying that neither Mohave nor La Paz counties were privy to the settlement as it was crafted, and the board still has not received copies of it.

"Our counties are being forced to give up resources for a settlement we know absolutely nothing about," said Supervisor Buster Johnson, District 3. "We are being used as a pawn in an Indian water settlement. This is another example of big business trampling the little guy. Big business went to Washington, D.C., wrote draft legislation and has our delegation doing its bidding."

The act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives June 20 by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate at that time by U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Arizona Republicans.

The settlement involves water rights in Planet Ranch and Lincoln Ranch, which are located in Mohave and La Paz counties. The board filed an objection in September 2010 with the Arizona Department of Water Resources to stop the transfer of those rights at both sites.

The board received notice June 4 that its objection was denied, although the state agency said the county could file an appeal within 30 days. The board agreed last week to pursue an appeal, retaining Phoenix attorney Carlos Ronstadt to handle it.

On Wednesday, the board and Ronstadt, along with two supervisors from La Paz county, questioned Francis McAllister, vice president of land and water at Freeport, about the settlement and why the counties were ignored.

"We consulted with our in-house and external counsel to determine what parties had brought objections in that actually would affect this phase of the settlement," said McAllister, who said he couldn't provide copies of the settlement to the county yet. "And in that process, we identified the United States government, the Hualapai Tribe and several others. We did not feel the objections brought forth by Mohave County were something we needed to address in this phase."

The settlement agreement for the first phase, which is time-sensitive because the water rights must be put into use within five years of transferring them, calls for Freeport to provide $1 million to the tribe for an infrastructure study fund. Also, Freeport must give the tribe an undisclosed amount of money for an economic development fund that would allow it to purchase water rights along the Colorado River.

Also, the company must provide some Planet Ranch land to the Arizona Game and Fish.

The settlement also limits pumping from the Wikieup Wellfield in Mohave County to 10,055 acre feet, waives future objections for water rights on various tribal trust and Indian alottee lands, and waives objections on the water rights remaining at Planet Ranch for the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program.

During the meeting, Penny Pew, district director and intergovernmental affairs liaison for Gosar, read a statement from him to the board. Gosar said the bill provides certainty for Bagdad Mine, which has an annual economic impact of $339 million to the state and sustains nearly 4,000 direct and indirect jobs. The Hualapai tribe benefits by securing more water rights and getting two large corporate contributions.

And the county and state benefit because the settlement calls for an overall net water use reduction in the basin of nearly 40,000 acre feet per year. Also, there is no public access to Planet Ranch currently, but a provision in the bill will allow for it. Gosar said the local counties benefit from jobs and tax revenue associated with continued use of the mine.

Freeport purchased Planet Ranch in 2011 from the city of Scottsdale so it could move its water rights to the Wickieup Wellfield, where the company continuously pumps water for its mining operation.

The Bagdad Mine produced about 220 million pounds of copper and 8 million pounds of molybdenum last year.