New Judge Named To Take Over Decades-Old Water Rights Cases

January 17, 2023

By Terri Jo Neff |

Two major water rights cases that date back to the 1970s are being reassigned to another judge, the first such change in more than 10 years, the Arizona Supreme Court announced last week.

Judge Scott Blaney of the Maricopa County Superior Court will take over the Gila River System and Source case as well as the Little Colorado River System and Source case, both of which were first litigated in the late 1970s. He replaces Judge Mark Brain effective Feb. 4 as what is commonly known as Arizona’s Water Judge.

The cases Blaney is taking over are general stream adjudication proceedings to determine the extent and priority of water rights in the Gila River system (Maricopa County case nos. W-1, W-2, W-3, and W-4), and in the Little Colorado River system (Apache County Superior Court case no. 6417).  

The Gila River General Stream Adjudication civil case began in the 1970s as a series of petitions to the Arizona State Land Department to determine, or adjudicate, conflicting surface water rights for the Salt, Verde, Gila, and San Pedro rivers.

The petitions were eventually transferred to the superior courts of the individual counties where the petitions were originally filed, but a 1981 Arizona Supreme Court order consolidated all four cases into the Gila River case. The justices also ordered the matters would be heard in Maricopa County.  

Similarly, the Little Colorado River Adjudication began in the late 1970s when mining company Phelps Dodge Corp. filed a petition with the state land department to determine water rights to the Little Colorado River system and source. The litigation was later transferred to the Apache County Superior Court as the county where the largest number of potential claimants reside.

Blaney, a graduate of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, served on the civil and family court benches of Maricopa County Superior Court since 2018. Prior to that, Blaney worked in private practice from 2003 to 2015 before becoming State Judge Advocate for the Arizona National Guard and general counsel for the Arizona Department of Emergency & Military Affairs (DEMA).

The state’s Water Judge is assisted by an appointed Special Master who hears disputes arising out of the cases, such as objections to hydrographic survey reports and other legal and factual issues designated by the judge.

Court records show the current Special Master is Susan Ward Harris, who was appointed in 2015. She has a master’s degree in hydrology from the University of Arizona’s College of Science as well as a Master of Law degree from Georgetown University.

Terri Jo Neff is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or send her news tips here.

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