Sunday, June 7, 2009

Follow-up on previous post, parts 3 and 4 from the Verde News on Prescott/Big Chino/Verde River controversy

The final two parts of this series came out during the past week - find them here and here. Actually, on that last one I'm guessing it's the fourth part - it's not exactly clear from reading the lead-in, but it came out just after part 3, by the same author, and has the same subject, so I'll call it part 4.

Part 3 talks about the history of the area some more, but the real focus is on what is occurring in the Big Chino watershed apart from the Big Chino Water Ranch project.
According to the State Land Department, there are approximately 318,000 acres of privately owned land in the Big Chino basin.
That number will grow when the Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange is completed.
In addition to private land, the State Land Department holds 233,000 acres in trust, which, by state statute, could be auctioned off and become private land in the future.
Virtually the entire basin, since it is rural Yavapai County, is zoned for one residence on every two acres. That, too, is subject to change as developers trade infrastructure, open space and other amenities for higher zoning densities.
And since the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors has yet to endorse a new state law that would allow them to deny a subdivision based on the lack of an adequate water supply, any and all developers have the right to sink a well, even if it eventually dries up.

What they are saying is that in addition to Prescott and Prescott Valley's plans to pump about 12,000 acre-feet of water from the basin, there could be thousands of small ranchettes out there with their own wells, pumping who-knows-how-much water from the aquifer. My guess is that will have some kind of impact on the Verde River eventually and because it will be the result of the actions of thousands of individual landowners, pinning the blame on the Water Ranch, while logistically tempting, will be difficult to do. Oh sure, they will be the only one's pumping from the aquifer and piping the water far away - their use will be essentially 100% consumptive - while the individual landowners will be pumping from their wells, using some of the water in their homes and yards, but eventually returning most of it to the watershed either through septic leachfields or sewer plant discharge. But if the private land in the valley were fully developed at some point in the future, the springs feeding the Upper Verde would dry up at some point.

So will all that land be developed? Pretty unlikely. Hopefully the majority of it will be taken off the market for development by purchase of development rights, conservation easements, or outright purchase of the land. The state land makes for a challenging issue because of the statutory requirement that the state obtain maximum value for that land (typically by selling it to a developer, who can then put the land to its "highest value" use by building homes, highest value strictly in terms of cold, hard cash). But there has been a strong push in the state in recent years to relax that requirement and hopefully the law will be changed by the time that land is considered ripe for development. But some of what you hear from the area is not real encouraging:
The new owners of the CV/CF Ranch, Chino Grande Ltd., have applied to the Arizona Department of Water Resources to pump 20,776 acre feet of groundwater from the aquifer -- twice Prescott's allotment.
They have also proposed selling 3,000 acre-feet a year of water rights from historically irrigated acres on the ranch, to the Town of Chino Valley. And they intend to build 25,000 homes on the land above.

The final article is a profile on two of the political players in this drama. John Munderloh is the water resource manager for the Town of Prescott Valley (one of the parties to the Water Ranch project) and Doug Von Gausig is the mayor of Clarkdale, a small community in the Verde Valley, downstream from Chino Valley. They both talk about sustainability in the article - Munderloh from the perspective of sustaining both water supplies and growth in the Prescott area and Von Gausig mostly from the perspective of sustaining the river.

Munderloh believes that all that is required to protect the river and permit his community to continue to grow is better management. Of course he still believes they need more water to support that growth. He takes the position that the estimates of natural recharge to the aquifer in Chino Valley are grossly understated because anytime water is flowing in the creek above the Verde headwaters, that means the aquifer is full and unable to take more recharge - a condition he claims is fairly common. It's a pretty simplistic view of hydrogeology that the proponents of pumping seem pretty fond of up there. They like to point to the fact that there has been pumping occurring in the valley for years to support irrigated farming and the river hasn't dried up yet. But they only have estimates of how much pumping has occurred (because no one measures those things in rural parts of Arizona) and the timing of that pumping may be quite different than the timing of pumping from the proposed supply wells. There really is very little known about what the long-term effects will be.

Von Gausig just knows that a healthy river is essential to his town because it supports existing water rights in the area (which would not be protected from upstream groundwater diversions under Arizona law) and most importantly is probably a significant source of tourism dollars for the area. That's why he supports a regional governing body that manages the river and the aquifers, plans for future water supplies, and generally ensures that everyone is on the same page. I wonder if the Salt River Project will be represented on that regional body?

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