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SPECIAL REPORT: Senior Water Rights

Samantha Byrd shares what this means for Yuma County and what the future holds for our water supply

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA, KECY) - The Colorado River plays a critical role in the history of Yuma County, drawing in settlers to live in our community, and farming the land with the precious resource of the river. 

Now, the iconic waterway is in its 23rd year of drought, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, and the two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead have sunk to historic lows, prompting a series of water restrictions.

The history of water in Yuma dates back over 100 years, shaping our community into what it is today.

The Yuma County Water User’s Association was incorporated and formed in 1903.

“It was established under federal legislation passed in 1902 to basically settle the west,” said Yuma County Water Users' Association General Manager, Tom Davis.

So, settlers could have a permanent water supply. 

Tom Davis said the delivery system in the Yuma Valley was constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation. 

“Settlers came in, some were already here, but others came in. There were promotional programs by the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation sent all over the United States and all over Western Europe to entice settlers to come to this area,” said Davis.

Davis said they sold the area by advertising the 365 days of sunshine, perfect growing conditions, healthy soil, and access to railroads.

The settlers who moved to Yuma applied for water rights from the Colorado River, for water attached to their land.

“Laguna Dam, siphon under the river, all the canal delivery systems, the settlers were obligated to repay that to the federal government,” said Davis.

Once the loan was repaid, those settlers received a water right.

The Yuma County Water Users’ Association securing a priority one right to the Colorado River.

“Which means whichever crops were grown in the valley, whatever the requirement of the crop, the beneficial use requirement of that particular crop, that outlines or defines the amount of water that can be diverted,” said Davis.

So, there is not a cap of water that can be diverted, it depends on the crops grown and how much water it takes to grow them.

Then, irrigation districts came along.

“And the state issued them water rights a certain cap, a certain block of water, a certain amount of Colorado River water,” said Davis.

Yuma local, Wade Noble is an attorney for four irrigation districts: Welton-Mohawk, Yuma, North Gila Valley, and Unit B, which have priority three water rights to the river.

He said the 20-plus-year drought on the Colorado River has been challenging.

“That just creates tremendous stress on how we get along with each other in the Colorado River basin and is pointing towards a need for a resolution before the year 2026,” said Noble.

Several reservoir and water management documents and agreements that govern the Colorado River are scheduled to expire at the end of 2026. 

These include the 2007 Colorado River interim guidelines for lower basin shortages.

“It is so complex and there are so many moving parts, that reducing everyone’s water, everyone taking cuts is an over-generalized statement of what it needs to be,” said Noble.

Noble said the 2026 guidelines and the protection of water in our community are critical to Yuma County because of the large agriculture industry.

“The agriculture uses divert over a million acre-feet each year, they return to the river 300 to 400 thousand acre-feet, meaning we use in Yuma County for agriculture 600 to 700,000-acre-feet per year,” said Noble.

He said water in Yuma, is not only important locally but for the entire nation. 

“It’s not just protecting us and our livelihoods, our businesses, our industries, it is protecting the food supply, the food that we eat for about five months of every year,” said Noble.

Given the scope of the task of creating the 2026 guidelines that will dictate the future of the Colorado River.

The Bureau of Reclamation believes it’s important to begin this process as soon as possible to provide ample time for a thorough, inclusive, and science-based decision-making process to be completed before the end of 2026.

Article Topic Follows: Special Reports

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Samantha Byrd

Samantha Byrd joined the KYMA team in February 2022 and is the morning anchor/producer for News 11 and Fox 9.

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