PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Saying that the town had not been doing its part to assist with the costs of a long-running water adjudication case, the Pinetop-Lakeside council voted unanimously in favor of an agreement with the Show Low Pinetop Woodland Irrigation Company on Tuesday night.
Although an executive session was on the agenda, the council held all discussion in open session.
The three-year agreement would include a monthly $3,000 payment from the town to the irrigation company to receive a “license” to the water in Woodland Lake. Town residents and officials have been concerned about the very low water levels in the lake, which is at the center of popular Woodland Lake Park. In exchange for the payment, the irrigation company, if they sign the agreement, would make a good faith effort to keep more water in the lake.
The water in the lake belongs to the private irrigation company’s shareholders, and the lake is drawn down annually for irrigation. Drought conditions over the past several years have brought the lake down to historically low levels.
While the situation with the lake has prompted action on the part of the town, a 40-year legal fight for water in the Little Colorado River system seems to be at the heart of the town’s actions.
Many of the towns and cities in Navajo and Apache counties are claimants in the case, along with many private parties, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. The suit will determine who can get water from the streams and tributaries of the Little Colorado River, the river itself, and how much. The suit finally landed in court this fall and the Hopi Tribe was the first to present testimony in the case. The tribes are claiming primary water rights as the oldest water users.
While other towns and cities have been helping to pay the hefty legal bills in the case to represent their interests, Pinetop-Lakeside has not participated, as council members and staff noted on Tuesday.
“The town has felt from the council on down that it was important for us to participate in the adjudication,” said Pinetop-Lakeside town manager Keith Johnson at the opening of the meeting. Mayor Stephanie Irwin said that she saw the license agreement for Woodland Lake as a “mechanism” to assist the irrigation company with the costs of adjudication. The town has budgeted for the expense.
Councilor Carla Bowen was perhaps the most outspoken about the issue.
“The irrigation company has been paying for the adjudication all these years, and we’ve been riding on their coattails,” she said. “From my viewpoint, $36,000 a year is a pretty good price to pay for all those years … we have to protect any interest (in the water) we can get. Nothing but benefit can come to this community,” she concluded.
Councilor Jim Snitzer and Vice-Mayor Jerry Smith concurred. “It’s very much in our interest to support this adjudication,” Snitzer said, and thanked the water company for all they had done that benefitted the community over the years.
Two attorneys, Alexandra Arboleda of TSL Law Group, Scottsdale, representing the town in the license agreement negotiations, and David Brown of Brown & Brown law firm in St. Johns, representing the irrigation company, spoke to the council to respond to questions.
Arboleda said she also believed the agreement would benefit the town. “It’s a bridge to ensuring a water supply for Woodland Lake — this agreement is the first step,” she said, and encouraged the town to partner with the irrigation company.
Brown said that he was familiar with Arboleda, that they worked on the “same side” as water attorneys. Both participated in giving the town a brief overview of the complicated issues involved in water law.
The Little Colorado River case, Brown said, is at a “fever pitch” right now, and he said other towns have paid a lot more into the case. “Thirty-six thousand dollars a year, that’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.
The proposed Woodland Lake license agreement will now go before the board of the irrigation company for discussion and possible action.