Going to the Well Too Often

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

Hydrologists from the Department of Water Resources agree with the private hydrologist who scouted water for Inscription Canyon that the wells in Hootenany Holler may not even reach the aquifer that the development has drilled into, but rather they just tap into pockets of water working their way down to the aquifer. Therefore, they argue, pumping the Inscription Canyon well should not affect the levels in their wells at all.

"They're getting all the water first," McCraine argues. "Water does not flow uphill."

But this spring, when Nadine Weber had her well checked, the water had dropped 10 feet, even after a wet winter and spring.

McCraine told Weber and the other Hootenany Holler folks that if their wells ran dry, they could buy water from his water company so long as they paid to have the pipes run to it.

"They can hook into my water company today," he told New Times.
Weber did not see it as a generous gesture.
"Swayze," she told him, "all these people have already paid for their water. They drilled wells."

It doesn't matter.
"I don't want to debate the equity issues, because there's no question they're there," says Jim Holway from ADWR. "But in terms of what the law says, if the developer tells you if you go dry I'll hook you up, that's more than his legal commitment."

You can buy the science you need. Because state and federal agencies really don't have the money and the personnel to analyze the environmental consequences of every project, they require developers and miners and other businesses to contract with their own experts and then submit their reports for approval. The consultants' livelihoods, then, depend on how well they can walk the ethical line between meeting the criteria set out by the agencies and giving their clients the information that will make their deals go through.

Paul Manera, the Paradise Valley hydrologist who reported on the water available to Inscription Canyon Ranch, has been in business for 40-some years. Agency personnel, water attorneys and competing hydrologists who know him say that he has a talent for bringing in the kind of reports that his clients need. Manera counters that if he weren't ethical, he wouldn't be able to remain in business.

Aquifers are fed by snow melt and rainwater that find their way down into the water table. The one beneath Williamson Valley, according to Manera's study, likely consists of two bodies of water, an upper aquifer and a lower aquifer, that flow into a bigger body of underground water called the Big Chino aquifer, which, depending on who you talk to, may or may not constitute part of the headwaters of the Verde River.

Manera's study, which he completed in 1994, claims that the amount of water flowing through the aquifer beneath the Inscription Canyon well each year is 3,430 acre feet. This does not describe the total amount of water in the aquifer, but rather the amount that seeps in as snow melt and rainwater flow into the larger aquifer.

At full build-out, Manera estimates, the 1,850 houses and the golf course will use only 633.7 acre feet per year, or one-fifth of the rate at which the aquifer refreshes itself. In other words, plenty of water.

However, to say that the development will only pump a fifth of the water does not take into account how much water is already being pumped.

Manera's report quotes a figure he lifted from a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation survey which states that in 1990, 2,723 acre feet were being pumped out of the same aquifer, ostensibly by farmers. That figure is now eight years old. Manera thinks the water consumption would have decreased further by now as more agricultural land falls from production; Phil Foster from ADWR thinks it would have increased.

"There have been homes built out there," Foster says.
Swayze McCraine mentions that a nearby ranch pumps irrigation water from five wells in the same aquifer as his well. Manera's report suggests that the pumping referred to by the Bureau of Reclamation study "appears" to occur "downslope" from his calculations, and whether that statement is deliberately imprecise is anyone's guess.

If that much water were being pumped in the vicinity of the Inscription Canyon Ranch well, it would account for 79 percent of the recharge that Manera says is there. Added to the 633.7 acre feet the development would use, it accounts for 3,356.7 acre feet, just 73.3 acre feet shy of the 3,430 acre feet figure Manera says runs through the aquifer beneath McCraine's well.

And if that were the case, then there may not be that much extra water available. It could mean that the new development, in addition to any other development tapping into the aquifer--and McCraine thinks another 100 or so houses could hook into his water company--could result in groundwater mining. That would be legal outside of the AMA, but it could eventually pump down the aquifer, invoking the specter of taps running dry in top-dollar homes.

When asked about that fantasy, Manera backpedals unconvincingly: The Bureau of Reclamation studies were probably made farther downstream, he assumes, and certainly more water would be available, he also assumes, because it would flow into the aquifer at points along the way. That seems to be a lot of assumption for a purportedly scientific document. Perhaps the BuRec measurements were made in the Big Chino sub basin, he says--though his report specifies Williamson Valley. In fact, he doesn't really know. So why does he quote the Bureau of Reclamation figure in the first place?

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