Marvin Cohen was a lawyer who helped negotiate one of the first water rights settlements among municipalities and Indian tribes in Arizona. He also worked with the City of Tucson to help ensure that CAP was constructed all the way to Tucson.
Marvin Cohen: Pioneering Indian rights settlements
(The story below is built around a recorded interview.)
As a high school student, Marvin Cohen went to the Key Club National Convention in Washington, DC. While he was there, he met an Arizonan who was working on getting funding to build a canal to bring water into the central part of Arizona. The idea sounded great to young Cohen and was the first exposure he had to Central Arizona Project and water issues in Arizona, but it was not his last.
Water again entered his world when he went to work for Morris and Stewart Udall after graduating from law school. When Stewart became Secretary of the Interior, Cohen was asked to be a special assistant to the Solicitor of the Interior.
“I learned more about water and the whole Reclamation ethos and the whole history of Reclamation from the 1902 Act forward,” Cohen said. “We got into a lot of issues relating to the settlement of the West really back in Interior with public lands, public waters, and how the mining law and all of that that gave birth to the west—all of importance to the state of Arizona.”
After leaving the Department of the Interior and heading back to Tucson, Cohen volunteered to help the City of Tucson address conservation problems in the early 1970s. His work was impactful, reducing Tucson water use to about 160 gallons per capita per day.
“There’s a different conservation ethic with water in Tucson and this was part of the beginning of it,” said Cohen. “My involvement with water as a lawyer grew out of that.”
Cohen didn’t stay in Tucson, however, and once back in Washington, worked with the City of Tucson to work out a settlement with the Tohono O’odham Indian water claim. It was the first settlement of its kind and paved the way for more to come.
His water work continued. Cohen continued to represent the City of Tucson on specific Central Arizona Project issues, including efforts to ensure the CAP system stretched all the way to Tucson. And he also worked with CAP, including efforts to get affordable power and struggles with the federal government over issues with pre-stressed concrete pipes.
All his experience drove home the importance of water, and specifically the long-reaching impact of Central Arizona Project, to the state.
“(Without it) we wouldn’t have been able to do the Groundwater Management Act and we would be pumping our reservoirs dry,” said Cohen. “I think eventually the state would’ve had to do it and pay for it itself instead of having the federal government do it. It would’ve had to be done.”