WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court handed three Arizona irrigation districts defeat recently when it refused to give back water rights granted to the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
The court, without comment, turned away the irrigation districts' argument that the federal government unlawfully transferred some of their water rights to the tribe.
Colorado River water distributed through the CAP is allocated to Indian tribes, cities, industrial users, and irrigation districts. The districts have the lowest priority.
In 1983, a federal agreement with the Ak-Chin Indians reduced the tribe's previous CAP water allotment by about 33,000 acre-feet per year. That water became available for agricultural use, and the three irrigation districts received a share.
But in 1992, Congress voted to reallocate all of that water to the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The Maricopa-Stanfield, Central Arizona, and New Magma Irrigation and Drainage Districts argued they were entitled to the water.
A federal judge sided with the irrigation districts, saying the Ak-Chin agreement gave them a constitutionally protected property interest in the water.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that the agreement only gave the irrigation districts the water on an interim basis.
In the appeal acted on recently by the Supreme Court, the irrigation districts' lawyers said they had a right to the water and the government should not be allowed to reallocate it without compensation.
The dispute with the irrigation districts is just one in a series of fights surrounding Indian water rights in Arizona.
The San Carlos Apache Tribe in March reached an agreement with the Roosevelt Conservation District, Salt River Project, and the Interior Department over the right to sell water and compensation for the tribe, whose water rights were used by others for years.
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