A mounted rancher rides forward, guiding his horse to a stop in a patch of shade trees. He dismounts and puts his hat on the saddle. Across the bottom of the screen a telephone number appears.
That’s how “Western Waters,” a 38-minute YouTube video hosted by Duncan-area rancher Richard Kaler, begins.
Kaler believes the water rights of American Southwestern farmers and ranchers are being taken away.
After introducing himself — “I spent 30 years working for the phone company and saved money to buy the Walking X Ranch” — Kaler says he’s among 149 defendants in a water rights lawsuit against Franklin Irrigation District members. He tells their story and appeals for legal assistance.
“If you’re an attorney or law firm who consider yourself to be altruistic, we need your help,” he says, and appeals to documentary filmmakers for help with future updates.
Kaler owns the Walking X Ranch, a working outfit he bought in 2012. “It’s one of the oldest ranches around; it goes back to the 1860s,” he said in an interview. “We’re currently running about 350-400 head of purebred Angus.
“I always wanted a ranch. When I first got married my wife and I would buy a house, fix it up and sell it to somebody else. We eventually worked our way up to where we had a fly-in bed and breakfast in Rimrock, Arizona. I was able to sell it for enough money to buy my first ranch, then I was able to expand. It’s taken me all my life to save the money to do it.”
Now, Kaler said, area farmers and ranchers could theoretically lose all their irrigated fields.
“After all the lawsuits we were hit with, we were wondering how best to respond. We all decided it was by making people aware. That’s why we made the video, to try the get the information out to others,” he said.
“I just want the word to get out of what’s going on; a lot of people are not aware of it. We’re kind of fighting from behind and have to try to catch up.”
Kaler said local property owners have appealed to Governor Doug Ducey and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to no avail.
Since it was posted in early June the video has had 528 viewers, with 17 giving it the thumbs up and one disliking it. Kaler said two “interested people” had responded to the video, but wouldn’t say whether they were attorneys.
Spreading the word
“I really think we’ll get more people to respond, but I think it will be people from around here at first,” he said. “We’ve advertised it on the radio and we’ve been telling everybody we know.”
The suit was filed under Arizona Revised Statutes 45-141.C, which Kaler called the “five-year use it or lose it law.” Kaler said under that statute, if a water rights owner doesn’t use the water for five years, that water reverts to the public.
In his opinion, the law discourages water conservation and doesn’t compensate the water rights owner.
“Farming on an Arizona river involves periodically changing fields,” he said. “As a river changes course, field boundaries change and many times are later reclaimed when the river changes course again. If our land’s water rights are taken we have nothing to reclaim.”
The video features interviews with other area landowners who have been sued. Jeanette Tyler, of Tyler Farms, said her father started clearing land for the family farm in the early 1950s.
In 2013, she said, she and her late husband got a letter from a law firm saying they could no longer use their wells.
She said they spent around $60,000 on attorneys before she settled, and that five of the Tylers’ wells were capped.
Ralph and Marcy Harris are also among the defendants. Marcy Harris, who teaches junior high school agriculture, said they bought their 20-acre property in 1996 and built their house, hay barn and other structures themselves. She said the lawsuit could take water rights on six of their 20 acres.
Kaler said the rest of the defendants are unlikely to settle.
“I don’t think we’re going to allow them (attorneys) to negotiate another thing. Once it’s negotiated it’s a done deal.”
Kaler also brought up some of Arizona’s water history — including the 1935 Globe Equity Decree, which he said put surface water under federal control and groundwater under the state’s.
He said the decree reaffirmed a 1912 agreement between the new state of Arizona and the federal government that all laws then on record were immutable.
In 2014, he said, a U.S. District Court judge in Tucson, Susan Bolton, ruled that surface water and groundwater were to be combined, effectively putting them under federal control.
“The Globe Equity Decree should have been left intact,” Kaler said.
The lawsuit could well be headed to a different district court judge — Scott Rash, who was confirmed and appointed in May after being nominated last fall.
“From what we understand — it’s not written in stone yet — it looks like it’s going to be Judge Rash’s jurisdiction, which we consider a good thing,” said Kaler. “We were just told about Judge Rash’s assignment in the last week and a half, so it’ll probably be a little while before it gets to court.”
Marcy Harris was less sure the answer would be found there.
“At this point I don’t think the solution is in the courts,” she said. “My personal opinion is that it’s gone too far. The only way we’re going to come up with a solution is for all the players to meet at a table. Everybody will have some sacrifice out of it, because the fact is we live in a desert and there’s not enough water for us all.”