YUMA – Sound management of Colorado River water forbids the Central Arizona Project operator from using “sovereign immunity” to take water entitlements from people along the river, the state’s top water official said Friday.
Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, detailed his concerns over the Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s legal claim when he spoke at a packed public meeting Friday.
Sovereign immunity is a legal protection that indemnifies public entities such as states and the federal government from many types of lawsuits.
CAWCD, which operates the Central Arizona Project canal, has acknowledged that gaining sovereign immunity as an “arm of the state” is of fundamental importance.
“The state has concerns that (CAWCD) will attempt to use the defense of sovereign immunity at the expense of water users in Arizona,” Buschatzke said.
Mohave County supervisors are taking legal steps to prevent Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District from transferring water rights to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
In addition to his oral testimony against sovereign immunity, Buschatzke compiled a more expansive written testimony on reforming Arizona water laws this year.
Those priorities include taking action to protect Lake Mead from falling to critically low elevation. Among those actions: winning legislative authority to finalize a “Drought Contingency Plan” with Arizona’s Lower Basin Colorado River partners.
A central feature of that plan is giving the ADWR director authority to “forbear” delivery of Colorado River water conserved by an Arizona contractor in Lake Mead.
That means the director would assure no other contractor could take that water from the troubled reservoir.
Buschatzke reminded lawmakers that CAWCD has attempted to use sovereign immunity in the past, notably in a federal case involving the Ak Chin Indian community’s entitlement to Colorado River water.
The governor’s office and ADWR have proposed legislation to clarify that CAWCD is not entitled to sovereign immunity in any lawsuit, he said.
“I would like to see our proposed legislation move forward this session,” Buschatzke said at the meeting organized by legislative leaders seeking public input on proposals to reform Arizona water laws.