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Arizona Supreme Court Rejects Challenges to Tohono O’odham Water Settlement December 8, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in State Courts.
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In re Adjudication Gila River System, No. WC-07-0002-IR (Ariz. Sup. Ct. Nov. 30, 2007)

Issue(s): Water Rights > Arizona Water Settlements Act >> Approval Procedures; Water Rights > Settlements >> Objections >>> Bases

Under the 2004 federal Arizona Waters Settlements Act (AWSA), the Arizona courts must approve any water settlement before it becomes binding. An Arizona Supreme Court Special Order allows claimants (non-settling parties) to object to the settlement terms if claimant’s water rights would suffer “material injury.” Given that AWSA could not affect its water rights, could the Pascua Yaqui Tribe successfully object to the settlement agreement?

On interlocutory appeal from the Gila River Adjudication Court, the Arizona Supreme Court said no. The Special Order allows claimants to object when the settlement would materially injure the claimant’s water rights. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe (Tribe) first challenged the constitutionality of the settlement agreement. The Supreme Court, however, held that the adjudication court could only review challenges based on material injury. Consequently, constitutional objections fell outside the adjudication court’s jurisdiction.

Moreover, the settlement agreement did not materially injure the Tribe’s water rights. The settlement agreement was not binding on the Tribe. Thus, it could assert its rights against the settling parties at a later date, if necessary. Even so, both the Special Order and AWSA prohibit any settlement interpretation that affects the rights of claimants. Part of the settlement also implemented water protection programs near the Tribe’s reservation where none existed before. Finally, the Tohono O’odham Nation could have gone to trial and proven more water rights than the settlement granted. If anything, the settlement protected the Tribe’s water rights. As a matter of law, then, the settlement couldn’t affect the Tribe’s water rights. Therefore, the Tribe’s objection based on material injury failed.

The Tribe’s various other objections were equally unpersuasive. The adjudication court did not act outside its jurisdiction by merely restating the contents of the settlement. A technical assessment of the Tribe’s rights was irrelevant to the Nation’s settlement. And, nothing in the Special Order requires the adjudication court to prepare a water rights assessment. As a result, the Supreme Court affirmed the adjudication court’s approval of the settlement.

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