Reclamation and Arizona
Mark Wilmer - Arizona's Water Master
Arizona's Water Master, Mark Wilmer Photo courtesy of Snell and WilmerArizona's Water Master, Mark Wilmer
Photo courtesy of Snell & Wilmer

You won't see his name on any libraries or government buildings. There aren't any freeways or airports named after him. You would even be hard pressed to find any mention of him in Arizona history books. However, Mark Wilmer is probably one of the most important people in Arizona's history. He is largely responsible for securing Arizona's future!

In 1952, the State of Arizona filed a complaint in the U.S. Supreme Court requesting that the court apportion the waters of the Colorado River. The case is known as Arizona v. California and would define the law of the river for all time. Mark Wilmer was a Phoenix attorney who in 1938 formed a partnership with prominent Phoenix attorney Frank Snell. Their firm, Snell and Wilmer, became one of the most respected law firms in Arizona history. Today the firm remains a major player in Arizona's water law community.

Arizona v. California was the longest case in U.S. Supreme Court history. It was filed in 1952, and the court's ruling was announced 11 years later on June 3, 1963. The trial itself lasted more than two years with over 340 witnesses and thousands of exhibits. The trial was not going well for Arizona. California had a building full of attorneys and engineers and all the resources necessary to make their case. A little more than a year into the trial, Wilmer shocked the Court and everyone following the case by scrapping Arizona's legal argument and making a dramatic shift in legal strategy.

Wilmer's new strategy argued that Arizona's right to the Colorado River was based on the legal rights stemming from the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928 which authorized the construction of Hoover Dam and the All American Canal. It was an incredible risk to change strategy in mid-trial. However, Wilmer's honesty and straightforwardness relative to the change in strategy as well as his plain-spoken courtroom style played well with the Special Master and the momentum of the trial shifted dramatically in Arizona's favor.

Arizona would go on to win the case and secure what was considered an equitable share of the Colorado River. Enough water to justify the construction of the Central Arizona Project, which was necessary for the future growth and development of Central and Southern Arizona. The shift in strategy also had great significance for the Bureau of Reclamation. In its opinion, the Supreme Court empowered the Secretary of the Interior to act as Water Master for the Colorado River, which included authority to allocate future surpluses and shortages among the states. In addition, Reclamation was responsible for the operation and maintenance of Hoover Dam and the other Colorado River operations and would be the federal agency responsible for the construction of the CAP.

With completion of the CAP, and Arizona realizing the ability to take its full allocation off the Colorado River, Mark Wilmer is finally receiving the recognition he deserves for securing Arizona's future. The CAP pumping plant that pumps Arizona's allocation out of the Colorado River at Parker, Arizona was named the Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant. His name will not likely be found in the annals of Arizona history but he will forever be remembered by Arizona's water community as the man who won the Colorado River for Arizona.

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