House panel asked to approve water-rights deal for Hualapai, Freeport

WASHINGTON - State, tribal and private-sector officials urged a House panel Friday to support an agreement that would settle a years-long dispute over water rights in the Bill Williams River watershed.

The Bill Williams River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2014 would guarantee some water rights for the Hualapai Tribe, allow Freeport Minerals Corp. to continue operating their Bagdad copper mine and provide the state with lands for wildlife protection, backers said.

"The settlement act is a good example of public-private cooperative resolution of long-standing water disputes," said Francis McAllister, vice president of land and water for Freeport Minerals.

"I think Freeport has been very honest in this agreement," said Hualapai Council Member Jean Pagilawa. "There is a lot of trust in it."

They were two of four witnesses at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, and backed by every member of the state's congressional delegation.

A companion bill in the Senate has been sponsored by Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain. It got a hearing in July but has not been voted on.

"I can't tell you how rare it is to have the entire Arizona delegation agree on a meaningful bill," Gosar said.

He said the bill would "facilitate the achievement of a fair and equitable settlement" and proclaimed the legislation necessary for the economic success of the state.

McAllister said there are potential economic benefits to be reaped by all of the parties involved. For the Hualapai, it provides water to meet the needs of increased tourism and for Freeport it provides water for the Bagdad mine, which was responsible for more than $300 million in economic activity in the state in 2013.

The bill would also give the state rights to land on Planet Ranch, a large tract of farmland along the Bill Williams River that would be used for a multispecies conservation program.

In 2011, Freeport bought Planet Ranch, which has to be put to beneficial use within five years under Arizona law, or the company risks losing water rights there, Gosar said.

He said all of the parties involved in the agreement have "worked too hard" for the deal to become "unraveled due to the inaction by Congress."

But Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Michael Black testified that while the Department of the Interior supports the goals of the bill, it also has "significant concerns" about sections that would waive sovereign immunity.

Pagilawa said in order to come to an agreement, both sides have to give.

"We waived our sovereign immunity in this legislation," she said. "So, we would like to see the Department of Interior also waive their sovereign immunity."

Even though time is running out for this Congress, Pagilawa remains hopeful. She said Friday's hearing was just another step in the ongoing battle to secure water rights for her tribe, and she would like to see Congress act on the bill by the end of the year.

"We just have to wait and see what the outcome is and then we are going to wait for the mark-up," she said. "And then we will go from there."

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