- Associated Press - Thursday, November 12, 2015

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The Arizona Supreme Court has upheld a decision allowing surface water rights to be transferred from Mohave County for use in a neighboring county, and made clear who has the right to object to such transfers.

The ruling Thursday overturns a decision by a lower court.

Mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc. applied to sever water rights from the Planet Ranch in Mohave County and transfer them to its well field for use at a mining complex in Yavapai County. The move doesn’t transfer actual water but preserves the right to use water from the Bill Williams River watershed, a tributary of the Colorado River, in western Arizona.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources approved the applications and Mohave County objected, arguing that it would suffer financially from a loss of property and sales taxes if the transfer occurred.

But the state high court said the county did not qualify as an “interested person” to file objections because its own water rights weren’t impacted.

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said Thursday he’s disappointed in the decision, “which goes to great length to say that local government has no interest or right to defend the natural resources within its boundaries.”

Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and author, said the case presented a fairly narrow question of statutory authority. But he said it’s a strong opinion in clarifying that the state Department of Water Resources doesn’t have to consider the objection of just anyone when it comes to requests for severing and transferring water rights.

“Just because you care about the river doesn’t mean you can be a person to object, you have to have some interest protected by it,” he said.

The court’s decision is final and cannot be appealed.

The applications filed by Freeport were required as part of a federal water rights settlement with the Hualapai Tribe. The settlement was set to expire Dec. 31 if certain conditions weren’t met. A spokesman for the tribe, John MacDonald, said the parties that include Freeport, the tribe, and the U.S. Department of the Interior now can finalize the settlement.

Under the settlement, Freeport will cap its water use from its Wikieup well field and recognize the water rights of the tribe and other individual tribal land owners on nearby parcels.

The company also agreed to give the Arizona Game and Fish Department 3,400 acres of farm land at Planet Ranch that will be managed for habitat conservation. The company’s water rights there would be severed and transferred to support its copper-mine operation in Bagdad.

State Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Michelle Moreno said the water rights in the settlement are all within the same watershed. She said the agency could find no other instance where a county filed an objection similar to Mohave County’s to a sever-and-transfer request.

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