'Till the cows come home

Cattle cross the Little Colorado River near Springerville earlier this year. The waters of the river and its tributaries have been the subject of litigation since the late 1970s.

SNOWFLAKE-TAYLOR — Both Snowflake and Taylor town councils hosted executive sessions last week for discussion and direction regarding the decades-long Little Colorado River (LCR) Adjudication. Both councils voted to allow their town managers to seek out alternative legal representation, with only a slight difference in the direction between the two towns.

The General Stream Adjudication is a judicial proceeding to determine or establish the extent and priority of water rights in the the Little Colorado River (LCR) system that began in 1978.

The LCR drainage includes most of Navajo and Apache counties. The purpose of the adjudication is to set into law both the extent and priority of all water rights in an entire river system. There are thousands of claimants and water users who have joined in these proceedings. The civil trial for LCR is being held in Apache County Superior Court. The Brown & Brown law firm of St. Johns represents many of the local towns and cities in the suit. Because it has now gone to trial, the amount each participant pays has increased, thus the primary reason for Snowflake and Taylor addressing it at their June council meetings.

In 2017 Snowflake’s Town Manager Brian Richards told the Independent that the Towns of Snowflake and Taylor would vigorously fight for all water rights of the Silver Creek and that they would welcome more partners to the coalition. However, not every person or town that will benefit from the adjudication pays into it. He explained that if you live in an unincorporated area, you probably are not contributing to the cause. He added that in the final adjudication, all of Navajo and Apache counties, reservations included, will benefit, thus more partners would lessen the financial outlay for all participants. Still not everyone has come on board.

Richards explained in 2017 that fees paid into the coalition are based on the partners in the LCR coalition. Snowflake residents pay $1 each month on their water bill which goes to pay for the legal expenses for their fight for their Silver Creek water rights. Without more partners in the coalition, those rates would likely rise, thus the current issue over going forward with Brown & Brown, one of the state’s premier water rights law firms.

Following an executive session, Snowflake’s Mayor Lynn Johnson stated, “(In the) water rights for individuals and precedents for those rights for anybody close to Little Colorado since the 70s, we have had legal representation from Brown & Brown concerning that. They represent us. The question is, with the increase in rates that we have had done to us in the last little bit, do we want to maintain our representation with Brown & Brown or seek alternative representation?”

A motion was made and there was a somewhat lengthy discussion among the councilors regarding the crafting of the motion to ensure they included all the necessary wording to allow the town manager to act accordingly.

Councilman Kerry Ballard asked for clarification on understanding whether the motion would be to find an alternative to the present legal representation or to find more representation.

Councilman Hunter Lewis interjected that the motion should be kept as broad as possible, keeping all options on the board.

After discussion, the earlier motion was withdrawn by the mayor who asked Town Attorney Robert Hall for advice in ensuring the motion included all aspects for the town manager to carry out the wishes of the council.

Hall interpreted the motion as stated, followed by Hunter Lewis jumping in to simplify his understanding of the issue.

“Do we remain in the coalition or get new representation? We need to make a decision which way we go with our water representation,” said Lewis.

Ballard commented, “David Brown has done this for many years and is about to go to trial and we are an important part of it and should not look for anyone else.”

Councilman Greg Brimhall said, “The town is limited in how much it can contribute. We can only do so much as we can. The costs keep going up.”

Hunter Lewis added, “Look at Snowflake’s revenue compared to other towns. We do not have deep pockets. We can potentially keep ourselves apprised of the litigation as to what is going on.”

A new motion was made to give Town Manager Brian Richards authorization to seek and hire new legal representation and sever existing legal representation for Little Colorado Water Adjudication.

The mayor asked for a roll call vote. Councilors Cory Johnson and Amanda Perkins were not present and the motion passed with Johnson, Hunter Lewis, Byron Lewis and Brimhall voting for the motion and Ballard voting against it.

Town of Taylor

Following their Executive Session, Taylor Mayor David Smith stated, “We have been involved in this for 25 years. It is something we have paid into, and within the last year plus, has been increasing in charges. The reason we are discussing this is because of the increased charges. Do we want to continue on with the fight or sever and leave participation and seek other counsel?”

The motion was made for the town manager to sever participation and seek out alternative counsel.

The vote was unanimous; Councilor Fay Hatch was not present.

The mayor asked Town Manager Gus Lundberg to follow up and get back to the council on the results.

This issue is not new for Taylor either. In 2018 they did a Water Rate Analysis to justify a rate increase which went into effect on December 1, 2018.

In the November 2018 council meeting, Lundberg said that in recent years, the fees established with the last increase in 2012, have not been sufficient to cover operating expenses. He added that the cost of preserving the town’s water rights through the Little Colorado Water Adjudication have more than quadrupled in the past two years, and the water and sewer fund has capital needs in order to continue to serve the system.

At that time Vice Mayor Shawn Palmer told the council there needed to be some type of education on the water adjudication issue because many people do not know about it.

Lundberg replied to Palmer saying the adjudication issue had gone on for a long time and costs had gone up because of getting ready for litigation. He also said the Town did receive a letter from an attorney on the matter, and Lundberg said he would create a new page on the Town of Taylor website and hyperlink it so that people can access the information on the adjudication issue.

The current water rate at that time was $15 per unit, per month and the approved increase changed that amount to $23.18. per unit, per month. The volume rate charge per 1,000 gallons consumed increased from $1.00 to $1.92. The $1.00 that was a part of the per-month charge for water adjudication was removed since it became part of the base rate.

Reach the reporter at bbruce@wmicentral.com

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering entertainment and the communities of Snowflake/Taylor.

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