Mohave County challenging legality of water rights transfer

KINGMAN - Mohave County Board of Supervisors met Wednesday in executive session to receive legal advice regarding the county's appeal to Superior Court of Arizona against the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

ADWR rejected the county's objections to the transfer of water from Planet Ranch in the Big Sandy River basin to Freeport Minerals Corp.'s open-pit copper mine in Yavapai County.

While he couldn't discuss specifics from the executive session, Chairman Steve Moss said motions were argued earlier this month and a court ruling is pending. More motions were filed, and a hearing is scheduled for March 18.

"We've requested a trial. We'll see if the judge grants it," Moss said.

The transfer is part of the Bill Williams River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2014.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, directs the Secretary of the Interior to enter into an agreement to lease land within Planet Ranch on the Bill Williams River to benefit the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program, and to provide for settlement of water rights claims in the Bill Williams River watershed.

Mohave County contends that Freeport does not have rights to transfer up to 40,000 acre-feet of water out of the area to support the mine and environmental programs.

It's also not in the local public interest, Moss said.

An attorney himself, Moss cited the "public trust doctrine" in case law that says local government can intervene to protect the interest of citizens on water and related issues.

The county is objecting to the water transfer because Freeport does not have legal ownership of the water, Moss added. Companies owned by Freeport said they own the water, and those companies did not apply with ADWR to sever and transfer the rights.

"The Freeport companies that claim to own the water lost ownership, in whole or in part, as they didn't put it to beneficial use for more than five years," Moss said. "In other words, they might have owned it at one point, but they no longer do. They disagree. A trial will tell us who's right."

Richard Basinger, president of Mohave Republican Forum, said he'd heard that Freeport has ample water in that area for mining operations, but needs potable water from the Big Sandy basin for drinking.

Basinger spent more than three years in Bagdad, where the Freeport mine is located, serving as a part-time pastor while commuting to Scottsdale for his law practice.

"What is the real motive for those wanting to transfer water from the Planet Ranch area in Mohave County to the Yavapai area?" Basinger asked. "I understand from conversations of that time it should not be needed for mining in the Bagdad area, as is being represented by those who have pushed the current legislation."

The city of Scottsdale acquired Planet Ranch for the purpose of transferring 50,000 acre-feet of water to Maricopa County, then sold the land to Freeport for $10 million in 2011.

"Freeport says they have plenty of water. Others say they don't. I have no idea as to who is right," Moss said. "I do know they are trying to transfer this water, in part, towards a credit toward their mining allocation in case they are wrong. The balance goes to environmental programs."