Going to the Well Too Often

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

Once upon a time, says James Buchanan, chairman of the Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission, Prescott's economy was based on ranching and mining and logging.

"Those things have gone away," he says, "and the economy is substantially built on growth. So I guess if we have growth, we are sustaining a very dynamic economy. Maybe an unrealistic economy."

"There's no question about it," agrees state Senator Carol Springer. "I would say that the building industry and related [industries] are a major part of our economy."

Better yet, the people moving in have plenty of money to spend: affluent retirees and Easterners who can afford second homes, Californians who cashed out of overpriced real estate and the high-salaried jobs they needed to pay the mortgage and can now afford to live well without working.

But the fear is, if the growth slows, so will the booming economy. And what can slow the growth?

Lack of water.
The City of Prescott has actively planned for shortage; it has an aquifer recharge program and recently passed a bond issue to purchase two lakes that had been used for agricultural purposes. The fast-growing town of Prescott Valley, on the other hand, has less visible means of drinking-water support.

Most of the Prescott area lies within an Active Management Area, one of five threatened areas identified by the state back in 1980 and managed by the Arizona Department of Water Resources to make sure the aquifers beneath are not pumped dry.

"At the time the AMAs were set up, everywhere one was created, groundwater was being overdrafted," says Jim Holway, assistant director of ADWR.

In the other AMAs, it was pretty clear that groundwater was being pumped out of the aquifers faster than Mother Nature could put it back in. The legal term used to describe that overpumping is "groundwater mining," and once it is declared within an AMA, the department can impose restrictions on pumping. New homes and businesses can't be built unless there's some guaranteed water source other than a well.

Phoenix and Tucson have that guaranteed water source in the CAP canal. The city of Apache Junction, which lies within the Phoenix AMA but is far from CAP water, has reached its limits in how far it can grow without piping in water other than groundwater.

But the Prescott AMA seemed different. The Prescott area was already undergoing a transformation from an agrarian community to a residential one. Agriculture pumps three to four times as much water per acre as residences do, and, the argument went, since agriculture was dying out, there would be that much more water available for homes. That thought was debated even inside ADWR.

"In retrospect, now that we have better data, I think the hydrologists convinced the whole agency that they never did come back into safe yield," says Holway.

The term "safe yield" means that groundwater pumping is within acceptable limits.

Senator Carol Springer has been at odds with the AMA since 1990, when she first proposed a bill to abolish it.

"I felt the best solution was to try a local management approach to our water issues," she says.

The Department of Water Resources, Springer contends, originally thought it would have to declare groundwater mining for the Prescott AMA in the year 2000. But last fall, the department dropped "a bombshell," saying that the declaration would be immediate.

Once the declaration is made, then developers would have to find new water in order to build. One way to do that is to buy someone else's water rights, a farmer's, for instance, as the City of Prescott plans to do.

Springer wrote a bill to put off the declaration until the end of 2000, raising speculation that she was trying to grandfather in a development proposed by Del Webb for Prescott Valley. And that Springer is a real estate agent did not go unnoticed.

"The issue is this," Springer says. "Once you have declared groundwater mining, it cannot be reversed even if further information would prove that that was inaccurate."

She feared a rush by developers trying to get their projects in under the wire before the door shut forever. Her original bill would have required developers to pay impact fees that could eventually be put toward developing new water sources, and it would have imposed restrictions similar to those that would be imposed under the groundwater-mining declaration until all questions were sorted out.

Questions, for example, like the one arising from the Shamrock Water Company, a Prescott-area private water firm that commissioned its own study to prove that the AMA still has groundwater to spare.

"That report has never been made available to us," says ADWR's Jim Holway.
"If you have the data to show that we're premature, bring it in and show it to us," says Phil Foster, ADWR's director of the Prescott Active Management Area.

Springer's bill would also establish a protocol by which water decisions could be reached. And in the end, that was all that remained of it when it reached the governor's desk; the declaration of groundwater mining will likely be finalized before the end of the summer.

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