WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

DEL WEBB'S 5,600-ACRE NEW RIVER DEVELOPMENT HAS SPAWNED CONTROVERSY. BUT NEWS COVERAGE HAS IGNORED THE WATER WHEELING AND DEALING THAT COULD CARPET ARIZONA'S VIRGIN DESERT WITH SUBURBAN SPRAWL.

Gary Giordano is convinced that a decadelong grand conspiracy involving the most powerful business and political interests in the state is finally coming to fruition. Unless it is unmasked, he insists, that sinister plot will destroy the rural community where Giordano lives--New River, Arizona.

At a cafe in downtown Phoenix last month, the former state legislator--a conservative Republican who would, in most cases, favor large business interests--describes a web of intrigue that, he says, surrounds the state's most powerful bank and one of the country's largest homebuilders. One gets the feeling he has told this story a few times before.

Giordano's yarn takes a while to unfold; understanding it requires a listener with the patience of a Cardinals fan and the financial acumen of a CPA. The bottom line, however, is clear.

Giordano believes that Bank One Arizona and Del Webb Corporation devised a long-running, diabolically clever plan to acquire--for next to nothing--5,600 acres of undeveloped state land three miles south of New River.

Now, Giordano says, Del Webb has begun to execute the last phase of that plan. If the homebuilder succeeds, a 50,000-person planned community will inhabit what once was thousands of acres of open desert. The losers in Giordano's complex scheme are the little guys--state taxpayers and New River residents. The winner, of course: Big Business.

This nefarious conspiracy has become visible to ordinary mortals, Giordano explains, because Del Webb had to seek approval from Maricopa County to build its 16,500-home New River project. Tracking backward in time from the county process, he says, has revealed years of evildoing.

"This was all planned ten years ago," he insists.
In the conversation, completed long before county supervisors are to vote on the Del Webb project, Giordano acknowledges that he's trying to stir up publicity; he wants to put pressure on the county to reject Webb's proposal, which would allow the company to build three homes per acre instead of requiring it to stick to the current standard in New River--one acre equals one home. Giordano already has whipped fellow residents into a "Save New River" frenzy over the development, even though it lies three miles south of, and on the other side of a mountain from, New River itself. The development won't even be seen from the existing town.

Still, Giordano is hoping to inspire a media blitz.
"The more publicity, the harder it would be for them to go through with this," he says urgently.

Giordano's conspiracy theory played well in New River. Pieces of it even made the pages of Phoenix's major dailies. But the notion didn't make much difference to Maricopa County supervisors. They approved Del Webb's development plan for New River with nary a whisper of concern.

In fact, the Grand Giordano Conspiracy Theory cannot hold up to even a moderate level of scrutiny.

This isn't to say that political intrigue and financial power plays have been absent from Del Webb's project, which the company calls the Villages at Desert Hills. There is a long, ugly and costly history etched into the desert the company wants to develop.

Rather than a carefully choreographed dance, however, the New River story appears to have been a desperate stagger, a chaotic thrashing about for a solution to the challenge facing all developers in the Sonoran Desert: getting water to your land.

In this case, the solution came from the unlikeliest of sources--a thinly populated Indian reservation south of Phoenix whose residents know firsthand what it's like not to have water.

That solution may open the way for leapfrog development such as the Sonoran Desert has never seen.

The Ak-Chin Indian Community's waterless days are long over, thanks to a handful of insightful leaders, several clever Washington, D.C., lawyers and a settlement of the tribe's long-standing claim that its water rights had been stolen by white settlers.

For the last decade, in fact, Ak-Chin leaders have grappled with an odder problem: The 600-member community, which lives on a 22,000-acre reservation 30 miles south of Phoenix, simply had too much water. Seventy-five thousand acre-feet of water--enough water to supply the residential needs of 350,000 people per year--were being taken from the Colorado River and delivered free to the community's doorstep via the Central Arizona Project canal. The water comes courtesy of the U.S. Interior Department.

Those annual deliveries are part of a federal water-rights settlement with the tribe. The deliveries are to continue indefinitely.

While the community uses a lot of the CAP water on a 16,000-acre tribal farm, there is a surplus. "The tribe was trying to figure out what to do with that extra water," tribal chairman Martin Antone says. "Are you going to let it run down the Colorado River to Mexico or capitalize somehow on the water you still have?"

A potential solution surfaced about two years ago. Sixty miles due north of the Ak-Chin reservation, Del Webb Corporation had acquired more than 5,600 acres of rolling desert next to Interstate 17.

The company believed the site was an ideal location for its next massive, Sun City-type development. It was a project expected to house 50,000 people.

But Del Webb needed water. A lot of water. Groundwater supplies in the New River area were far too scanty to support anything so massive as the Villages at Desert Hills.

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