Going to the Well Too Often

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

"I think this whole discussion has raised the level of awareness of the development community that water up here is a finite resource, far more finite than it is in Phoenix or Tucson," says Brad Huza, director of environmental services for the City of Prescott. "We don't have a CAP canal running through our front yard. And Prescott's going to be engaging in some fairly lengthy discussions with the development community."

But outside of the AMA--in Hootenany Holler and Inscription Canyon Ranch--anything goes.

As developments go, Inscription Canyon Ranch is a good one: upscale houses on two-acre lots that reflect a sincere effort to maintain the area's woodsy, outdoorsy feel. Lots of open space--even if much of it is golf course and you and I can't go there without a membership. Hiking trails--even if they do go under the high-tension wires.

So far about 16 houses have been built; more than 1,800 more can be built, and they will mostly fall in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. The golf course has not yet been designed, nor has it received all the various governmental approvals needed. The developer hopes it will break ground by this fall.

The land belongs to a Chicago family, and the development is being put together by a group of Prescott-area investors, including one who sits on the Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission, and led by a rancher named Swayze McCraine.

The development lies about 15 miles out of Prescott, not far from where Williamson Valley Road wanders into the Prescott National Forest. Driving out to Inscription Canyon Ranch from Prescott, one is struck by all the wide-open space, meadows dotted with junipers, granite outcroppings, occasional ranch houses and a few of those trendy neo-Victorian houses with all-American front porches. But with the exception of one big residential tract, also developed by McCraine, it's sparsely populated. The Inscription Canyon Ranch development will clearly be an anchor, and future developers will be able to in-fill back toward the city.

In 1995, in what it described as a "visioning process," Yavapai County sent out a survey to homeowners in Williamson Valley. The survey asked what sorts of projects--convenience stores, shopping malls, housing developments--the current homesteaders wanted to see in their neighborhood. It would give them "an active role in shaping their future."

The overwhelming majority of respondents wanted to keep the area rural and scenic--that is why they moved there in the first place. And 60 percent of those who answered said that they did not think golf courses belonged there.

Statistically, a 12 to 14 percent rate of response to the survey would have been good, but this one received more than 30 percent. Nevertheless, when the golf-course deal was questioned, one planning and zoning commissioner opined that the uncounted 70 percent of Williamson Valley residents were probably pro-golf.

Ralph Pfleger, a resident of Hootenany Holler, calls it a breach of trust.
"I don't think any of us dispute that they have a right to do something there," he says, "but we were also surprised by the excessive nature of what they proposed out there. Obviously the county listened to what everybody said and ignored it."

Still, it's private property, and this is America; you should be able to do pretty much what you want with your land.

But golf courses use up prodigious quantities of water. Eventually it will be watered with effluent from the development, but it could take 10 to 15 years before enough effluent is produced by the development.

"They're taking huge amounts of public resources--that's water--for private recreation," says Jen Scott. "That's wrong."

"You can only go by a hydrologist or an engineer--and I'm neither," says Swayze McCraine, "and I can't really tell you much about that except that I rely on [the hydrologist]."

McCraine's an amiable fellow, and he's damn sure that there's plenty of water for everyone. "Not only don't I want to hurt the neighbors' wells, but at the same time, I wanted to make sure that we had a hundred-year water supply.

"I want it done right, because I don't want to get called in the middle of the night 10 years from now by someone saying, 'My water's gone.'"

To that end, rather than drill a well for each of the 1,800-plus houses, McCraine set up a community, nonprofit water company to service all of them, plus the 135-acre golf course. Shallow, individual wells can run dry; the water company could drill deeper and store in bigger tanks. Furthermore, the water company established rules that charge more for excessive usage and that forbid lawns beyond a certain size.

Since there wasn't enough water directly beneath the development, the investors procured an acre of land two and a half miles northwest of Inscription Canyon Ranch--and just west of Hootenany Holler--and sunk a well and started pumping water to meet construction needs.

Nadine Weber and her husband Todd have lived in a small house in Hootenany Holler for 20 years. About three years ago, the Inscription Canyon Ranch water company set up a drilling rig directly behind their house looking for water. That well did not produce adequately, and so a new one was drilled about a half-mile farther west down into the aquifer beneath Williamson Valley.

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