Going to the Well Too Often

Should boom towns like Prescott let little things like water shortages keep them from growing?

Jen Scott knows that whatever she says when she stands up to speak at a zoning commission meeting will be discounted. She's lived near Prescott for only a year and a half, so who is she to speak out? And furthermore, she's a Californian, the most despised of all newcomers. She and her husband Kevin McKean cashed out of a house and jobs in the Bay Area to be full-time sculptors and built a home and a studio on a tract of land down a dirt road in an old development with the embarrassingly quaint name of Hootenany Holler.

Inscription Canyon Ranch, a 1,850-home, north Scottsdale-style planned development and golf course, is going in just down the ridge from Scott. She doesn't even want to bring up the environmental consequences of golf-course pesticides and other chemicals.

"Environmentalism is spelled with four letters," she says.
She knows she's got a touch of NIMBY--"Not in My Back Yard"--because she moved here to get away from sprawl.

But what worries her most is the possibility that the new development's well will pump hers dry. The water level in her well has dropped five feet in the last year, but no one can tell her with any certainty if that's a delayed reaction to the last few years of drought or if it's because of the development's well.

The developer says her well is not connected to the same aquifer, but she doesn't know if she should believe him. No one can see what's underground; they can only rely on the reports of the consultants paid to find in favor of the developer.

And it doesn't matter anyway. In this state, if someone pumps the water out from under you, there's nothing the law can do about it.

Welcome to Arizona, Jen Scott.

The ABC's of Water Conservation is a little blue booklet on racks at the main offices of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. It's full of helpful suggestions for saving water: putting a jug in the toilet tank; flushing less often; filling the sink to shave instead of letting the water run; reusing bath water to wet the lawn or do heavy cleaning.

Why should Arizonans conserve water? Because it's a desert, one billboard campaign used to say.

But the real reason turns out to be: so that developers can build as many houses and pump as many dollars into the economy as they possibly can.

State law says that builders have to prove that there is a 100-year water supply for a house to be built. Inside the state's five "Active Management Areas," where water is closely monitored, that's that. But outside of the AMAs, the houses can still be built so long as the original home buyers are notified of the water shortage. The next time the houses are sold, buyer beware.

In Phoenix, where we can draw on Salt and Colorado River water floated to us in canals, water is not the problem it is in other parts of the state.

"Some areas are being pushed to the limits," says Jim Holway, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Payson, Strawberry and Pine, up on the Mogollon Rim, are already in crisis.
"We've been telling them for years that they have no water, and they're continually approving developments," says Karen Modesta, a hydrologist with ADWR.

The Verde Valley is getting increasingly nervous about finding water for new growth. A fight over groundwater pumping in Sierra Vista has raged for years between growth-hungry town officials and a U.S. Army base on one side and environmentalists protecting the San Pedro River on the other.

And elsewhere in Arizona, as growth blows more small towns into boom towns, finding that hundred-year supply of water will prove increasingly difficult.

Incidentally, the law doesn't mind if getting your hundred-year supply means sucking up someone else's.

For the folks in Hootenany Holler, this is just another in a string of perceived injustices.

"It's not only water," says Rick Meyers, head of Williamson Valley Concerned Citizens, a local group that formed to protest Inscription Canyon Ranch. "It's the fact that we are seeing, literally, development at any cost. They don't care if they've got to railroad people. They don't care if the neighborhood doesn't want them."

Back in 1995, the Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission sent out a survey asking what the locals felt about home densities and commercial development and golf. The locals responded that they wanted to keep their rural lifestyles, and golf was not part of that lifestyle.

And nothing sucks water like a golf course.
"They have a philosophy that they should grow and grow and grow," says Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis, who cast a dissenting vote on the planned development. "And nobody can stop them, especially for a little thing like lack of water."

It's private property. And a free country.

During the past five years, anyone driving Highway 69 into Prescott has seen the road grow from two lanes to four, and has seen the grassy hills of Prescott Valley sprout housing developments that make them resemble San Diego. More highways are envisioned to facilitate the growth planned for Chino Valley to the north.

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