Ak-Chin Lawsuit Against CAWCD Seeks to Clarify Tribe’s Water Rights

On March 28, 2017, the Ak-Chin Indian Community (“Ak-Chin”) filed a lawsuit against the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (“CAWCD”) alleging that the district was refusing to deliver water the tribe is entitled to.

The Ak-Chin submitted its request for water in the amount of 89,174 AF (85,000 AF delivered and 4,174 AF to cover conveyance losses) for 2017 on October 1, 2016. CAWCD denied the request stating that the tribe ordered more water than it was entitled to.

Under the 1984 Ak-Chin Water Rights Settlement Act, the Ak-Chin is entitled to receive a permanent supply of 75,000 AF per year—with 50,000 AF per year coming from water previously assigned to the Yuma Mesa Division of the Gila Project and 25,000 AF per year coming from Central Arizona Project (“CAP”) water allocated to the Ak-Chin. The tribe can request up to an additional 10,000 AF when the Secretary of the Interior determines that there is sufficient surface water available and sufficient capacity in the main works of the CAP. As the operator of the federally-owned CAP, CAWCD is responsible for the deliveries to the Ak-Chin. A court order issued on July 27, 2017 joins the United States as a party to the case.

The tribe has requested and received the additional 10,000 AF per year since deliveries began under the settlement act. Because the source of the additional 10,000 AF is unspecified, however, it has been a cause of contention between CAWCD and the Ak-Chin. The lawsuit was filed to gain certainty about that piece of the tribe’s water supply.

“This is a long-standing issue regarding differing interpretations of ambiguous language in the Ak-Chin water settlement act,” said Jay Johnson, General Counsel to CAWCD. “In an effort to finally resolve the issue, CAP recently suggested that the Bureau of Reclamation or the tribe take the lead in filing for a declaratory judgement that would put the decision in the hands of a neutral party—the court. This is not about withholding water, but is about a mutual desire to seek clarity on the parties’ respective rights.”

The Ak-Chin argue that the water rights are critical to their ongoing success. The tribe runs Ak-Chin Farms—a 15,000-acre agricultural enterprise—is currently expanding the Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, and has other capital projects planned.


Written by Marta L. Weismann