Water is for fighting: Gosar, Mohave County sparring over transfer to mine

Congressman, Angius engage in heated exchange

Mohave County has not given up on its fight to prevent the transfer of thousands of acre-feet worth of water rights associated with the Big Sandy and Bill Williams rivers. The Wickieup Wellfield lies entirely within Mohave County while rights assigned to Planet Ranch straddle Mohave and La Paz counties. Mining company Freeport Minerals, which owns the rights, will transfer them, and the water they represent, to the company’s Bagdad Mine in Yavapai County. (SPARKY KNOWLTON/Miner)

Mohave County has not given up on its fight to prevent the transfer of thousands of acre-feet worth of water rights associated with the Big Sandy and Bill Williams rivers. The Wickieup Wellfield lies entirely within Mohave County while rights assigned to Planet Ranch straddle Mohave and La Paz counties. Mining company Freeport Minerals, which owns the rights, will transfer them, and the water they represent, to the company’s Bagdad Mine in Yavapai County. (SPARKY KNOWLTON/Miner)

KINGMAN - U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar opened his remarks to the Mohave Republican Forum Wednesday night by saying, "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting."

Mohave County Supervisor Hildy Angius was happy to oblige.

The sparks flew after Gosar highlighted his successes in the U.S. House of Representatives and concerns he has about where the nation is headed.

The last item he touched on was the all-but-done transfer of water rights located along the Bill Williams and Big Sandy rivers in Mohave County to the Bagdad Mine and township in Yavapai County.

The Bill Williams River Water Rights Settlement Act has been a complicated process involving several entities, both private and public, Congress and President Barack Obama, for more than five years.

The act was designed to codify various agreements that would settle disputes over water rights in the watershed. The players include Freeport Minerals Corp., the operator of the Bagdad copper mine in Yavapai County; the Hualapai Tribe; the federal Department of the Interior; and Arizona Game and Fish. Mohave County was left out of the discussion despite voicing several concerns.

Supervisors oppose the act over fears it would cost the county water, land and property taxes, negatively impact development, and hamper the county's ongoing efforts to update the general plan.

State water officials have determined Mohave County has no standing in the matter because the county holds none of the nearly 40,000 acre-feet worth of water rights in question.

Gosar used sharp words at Wednesday's meeting when he told an overflow audience that the county's opposition was misplaced and he accused local officials of using a misinformation campaign designed to disrupt the act's passage.

He said no revenues would be lost by the county and no additional land would be provided to the Hualapai Tribe.

He also said county concerns about losing access to hunting and fishing grounds was wrongheaded because the land is currently in the hands of private property owners, but would open for recreational purposes once it is under government management.

"If you don't have permission, you're trespassing," he said.

In fact, Gosar said the mine owns the land and water and used an analogy that prompted Angius to respond.

"Let's say you have 1,000 acres of land," said Gosar. "You own it and want to sell it and here comes the supervisors wanting a piece of that pie."

Angius said the issues are "very complicated," but she bristled at Gosar's contention that the county has no legal right to involve itself in the legislation.

"I want to reply to your 1,000-acre (private property) analogy," said Angius. "I recently bought a home and sold a condo and neither of them needed the president's signature."

Obama signed off on the bill in December after Congress, in a rare bipartisan vote, approved unanimously.

"This is a little insulting," she said.

Congress and the White House were involved because a key component of the act involves the sovereign Hualapai Tribe.

Angius still couldn't see how the county could be excluded, saying, "This sets a very dangerous precedent to all local governments."

"And you (supervisors) went behind my back when you don't even know what the settlement is about," retorted Gosar.

"So we're ignorant?" asked Angius, before telling Gosar the county will continue to fight against the transfer.

Gosar told her the fight was over.

"It's settled," he said.

At that point, Forum President Richard Basinger figuratively called a timeout to end the heated exchange.

Supervisor Jean Bishop brought up a different water issue a few moments later when she cited Las Vegas developer and Golden Valley farmer Jim Rhoads' controversial water use.

"He's putting wells in as fast as he can," said Bishop. "What can we expect you to do for us when we no longer have any water?"

"That's a state issue," said Gosar.

"We're very concerned," responded Bishop. "We expect you to represent us."

Beyond the harsh words and bad feelings between Gosar and the Mohave County Board of Supervisors lies the act itself. And while Mohave County might or might not be harmed by its passage, there are benefits to Arizona, the Hualapai Tribe and to wildlife - as well as to Freeport Minerals and the Bagdad Mine.

Gosar, in a lengthy message posted on his website, said the legislation "supports thousands of jobs in the state, including 175 in Mohave County; facilitates an Indian water rights settlement and will result in a significant net water benefit to the basin."

What will it do?

The agreement, said Gosar, will provide certainty for the Bagdad Mine, which reportedly has an annual economic impact of nearly $340 million to the state.

The Hualapai Tribe benefits because is secures water rights from Freeport Minerals and puts an end to longstanding disputes between the tribe, state and federal government.

Gosar, however, also said the act will benefit Mohave County because it provides $16 million in economic benefit to the county - and the state, as part of the agreement, will pay Mohave County "in full for all property tax revenue lost as a result of this legislation." The figure he cited is $2,000 annually.

Also, he said the transfer would actually result in a net water use reduction of nearly 30,000 acre feet per year since the mine only plans to take about 10,500 acre feet. That contention has been hotly refuted by supervisors, who say the county will still lose thousands of acre-feet of water annually.

The act allows Freeport to transfer water rights from the Wickieup well fields in Mohave County in order to expand the Bagdad Mine.

Water rights the mine owns at the Planet and Lincoln ranches in Mohave and La Paz counties would also be transferred. The agreement calls for Freeport to donate 3,400 acres of land it owns at Planet Ranch to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which will manage the land as part of the Multi-Species Conservation Program.