The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that state trust lands did not come with water rights, settling an important question in a case to resolve claims to the Little Colorado and Gila rivers.
Dozens of entities have laid claim to water from the two rivers in a decades-long case.
The state of Arizona had argued that water rights should be attached to State Trust Lands because they are arid and by attaching water rights the land will be more valuable. In the opinion, the State Supreme Court pointed out that the arid nature of the land was acknowledged by the federal government when the property was deeded to Arizona at statehood. As a result, Arizona was given more land than any other state.
University of Arizona regents' professor Robert Glennon says Arizona's argument had posed a serious threat to tribes, cities and farmers. He says if state trust lands had water rights, those would "wreak havoc" on the allocation of water in Arizona.
Water is allocated in Arizona based on the legal concept of prior appropriation. In the simplest terms, prior appropriation means first come first served, or the first person to divert water from a stream or river has a vested right to that water.
The legal concept of prior appropriation dates back to the 1800s when miners and settlers in the American West were staking claims on federal property.