Ownership of Lands Located Within Arizona Riverbeds
In Arizona, the State's potential claim to lands located within its riverbeds, other than the Colorado River, laid largely dormant for 73 years.
But in 1985, State officials began asserting claims based on the equal footing doctrine. Hassell, 172 Ariz. at 360, 837 P.2d at 162.
Two years later, the Arizona Legislature sought to relinquish most of these claims, finding they disrupted long-held assumptions regarding property ownership throughout the state. Id.
In 1991, however, this court held that disposing of these claims without a "particularized assessment," for little or no compensation, was unconstitutional under the gift clause and the public trust doctrine. Id. at 371, 837 P.2d at 173.
In response to Hassell, the legislature created the Arizona Navigable Stream Adjudication Commission in 1992 to "investigate and adjudicate" the navigability of the state's rivers and "issue a 'final administrative determination.'" Defenders of Wildlife v. Hull, 199 Ariz. 411, 416, P 5, 18 P.3d 722, 727 (App. 2001).
To further the systematic adjudication of potential claims in an administrative framework, the legislation establishing the Commission also divested courts of subject matter jurisdiction of questions of navigablity.
In 1994, the Commission's role was limited to fact-finding and was subjected to restrictive evidentiary standards in making recommendations as to whether a river was navigable at the time of statehood. Id. at P 6.
In 1998, the Commission issued its recommendation, concluding that many of the state's rivers were not navigable. Id. at P 7.
Adopting these findings, the legislature relinquished most of the State's claims, including those situated along the Gila River. See A.R.S. 37-1129.01 to 1129.16 (Supp. 2000), repealed by 2001 Ariz. Sess. Laws, ch. 166, 2 (1st Reg. Sess.).
The Court, however, invalidated the legislature's second attempt to dispose of the State's claims because federal law preempted the restrictive evidentiary standards the Commission was required to use. Defenders of Wildlife, 199 Ariz. at 426, P 58, 18 P.3d at 737 (holding the standards conflicted with the test established in the Daniel Ball, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 557, 19 L. Ed. 999 (1870)).
The Court also found that relinquishment of the State's claims was unconstitutional under Arizona law because it did not comply with the need for a "particularized assessment," as required by Hassell. Id. at 427, P 63, 18 P.3d at 738.
Thereafter, the legislature revised the statutory scheme, placing responsibility once again on the Commission for making final determinations of navigability and revising the standards used to conform to federal law. See 2001 Ariz. Sess. Laws, ch. 166, 1 (1st Reg. Sess.).