As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, the City of Tucson is looking at setting up some policy guidance (pdf) to help them evaluate proposals to hook into a pipeline, jointly owned by the city and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (the CAP), at the end of the CAP canal/pipeline south of Tucson. Nothing is set in stone yet - the Mayor and Council instructed staff to make some modifications to the criteria they considered, then bring it back for a vote sometime this summer. But there has been plenty of grandstanding about what is best for the city, what is best for our shared aquifer, and who is a good steward of our resources. I jumped into the fray myself last week by submitting a guest opinion that was published in the local paper.
While some people will insist that this isn't about one group we like (Farmer's Investment Co., or FICO, who own large pecan orchards in that area) against another group we don't like (Community Water Co. of Green Valley, or CWC, who is the major municipal water provider in Green Valley and have teamed up with the owners of the Rosemont Mine in their proposal to pipe CAP water south and recharge the aquifer with it) all the discussion so far has been focused on just that. The intent of my opinion piece was to bring the discussion focus back to the importance of regional water resource management.
FICO currently pumps over 25,000 acre-feet of groundwater to irrigate their orchards. They have a state permit that allows them to take CAP water to offset their pumping (known as in-lieu recharge), which earns a water storage credit for the entity that sends them the CAP water. Another mining company, Freeport-McMoRan, which operates a mine near Green Valley, would like to acquire CAP water that could be sent to the FICO orchards, thereby earning water storage credits for Freeport that they can market to groundwater pumpers within the AMA or simply use to offset their own groundwater pumping, which amounts to nearly 30,000 acre-feet annually.
CWC has current demands in their service area of about 2,600 acre-feet annually. They have a CAP allocation of just over 2,800 acre-feet that they have been making payments on for years and would really like to start putting to use in their service area. Their partner in the pipeline project, the Rosemont Copper Co., has offered to pay for a pipeline that can deliver CWCs water and enough water to offset Rosemont's proposed pumping in the area of 6,000 acre-feet. Rosemont is awaiting approval of environmental studies that would allow them to begin mining for copper in an area about 30 miles east of Green Valley. They have a permit from the state allowing them to pump the water they need for the mine near Green Valley then run it by a separate pipeline to where their mine is located. Their permit includes no requirement to offset their pumping with recharge of renewable water, but they committed to doing so in hopes of convincing the locals that they are interested in conducting a "sustainable" mining operation - or at least as sustainable as mining can be.
The people in this community who are opposed to the Rosemont Mine (and they are legion) like to point out that because the mine's water extraction permit does not require offsetting recharge, their promises to the contrary don't amount to much. That could be true, but a company that wants to be part of this community for many years probably wouldn't make idle promises on issues like that. There is a somewhat perverse belief that sending the water to a pecan orchard to offset their pumping (and also earning a storage credit that will allow someone else to pump additional water from the aquifer) constitutes better resource management than replacing water that is going to be pumped in the future - I think they are generally equal from the perspective of aquifer management. They also seem to have a belief that unsustainable groundwater pumping (if they are unable to engage in recharge) by the mine should help prevent it from being approved - I don't believe that is the case. The rules governing environmental review of hardrock mining projects on federal land are designed to provide a thorough review of the environmental impacts of the project and find ways to mitigate those impacts where possible, but the end result of that process is eventual approval of the project in some form. As long as a water source is available, it doesn't greatly impair any federal reserved water rights, and the necessary state permits are in place, that shouldn't be an issue in mine approval.
There is an enormous gap between the amount of water that is pumped out of the aquifer near Green Valley and the amount that is replaced annually. Water levels in the aquifer are declining by as much as 4 feet a year. This will lead to degradation of the aquifer, water quality problems (the existing mines in particular pump considerable amounts of water simply to contain the contamination they have already caused), land subsidence, and higher pumping costs in the future. My point is that the more of that pumping you can offset with recharge the better off you will be in the long run. I don't care who is pumping or why they are pumping. If they are willing to recharge to offset some of it, it's a good thing for the aquifer. And that aquifer is not only important for people in Green Valley, it's critical for Tucson as well because we are downstream from Green Valley.
That is why I believe that good resource stewardship requires that the city permit anyone to connect to the pipeline who is committed to bringing water to that area and using it - either to reduce current or future pumping or to artificially recharge the water to offset the effects of that pumping to the aquifer. Yes, Tucson needs to protect it's interest in existing projects they have in the area, but playing politics with the pipeline proposals does a huge disservice to overall, regional, water management goals.