Going to the Well Too Often
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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?
"I simply put it in there because it is in the literature," he says. And, "I guess if you needed to go back and look at that, you could probably estimate where that withdrawal was from. I didn't do it."
In other words, Manera doesn't know, and nobody else really knows, how much water is there or how pumping it out will affect any other users. And it doesn't matter anyway because they're downstream. And besides, to do an extensive study of all available water in the area would be prohibitively expensive.
"You've got to remember that Manera works at 100 to 150 dollars an hour. I wasn't pushing him to do some monthlong study on where [Reclamation] found their data," says McCraine.
However, with a couple of quick phone calls, New Times found two of the Bureau of Reclamation scientists who had prepared the report.
The pumping was not measured in any one place downslope from the Inscription Canyon Ranch well, but rather it was calculated from crops planted in the area times the amount of water those crops need, asserts Darrell Ewing, a Bureau of Reclamation geologist.
As for Manera's assumption that much more water would run into the aquifer downstream, "We found that the recharge was all up in the mountains, and once you hit the valley floor there was very little recharge, if any," says John Osterberg, a Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist. "He'd probably have the most of it running underneath him."
Furthermore, the study had nothing to do with estimating water available for pumping, but rather it proved that the Big Chino and Williamson Valley sub basins emptied into the Verde River and that pumping from them would affect the river adversely.
Nonetheless, Manera's report satisfied the letter of the law, and the Arizona Department of Water Resources signed off on it.
"That means our technical staff has reviewed it," says ADWR's Jim Holway, "and what we're concurring with is that underneath your property, to a depth of 1,000 feet, in that bathtub there is enough water to serve you. We're not saying you might not draw up every other well in the area, and we're not saying at the end of 100 years you might be empty."
Although the Inscription Canyon development was approved by the Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, the approvals were not unanimous.
"I am concerned that some of the water issues are not adequately understood," says James Buchanan, chairman of the county zoning commission. "And during the period of time in which we don't completely understand the consequence and outcome of decisions, instead of erring in favor of the resource, we may be erring in favor of growth."
Buchanan voted against the project, and so did county supervisor Chip Davis, who represents the Verde Valley area.
"The biggest issue for us is that the water source does drain out in the Big Chino [aquifer], which is actually the headwaters of the Verde River," he says. "If everyone sucks it before it gets to the river, there's no river."
One zoning commissioner, on hearing that the water ran into the Verde River, allegedly remarked that since it was going to go to waste by running down the river, the county might as well use it for golf.
Besides, there are alleged studies saying that the Williamson Valley and Big Chino aquifers don't reach the Verde River anyway, which makes Davis apoplectic.
"We do study upon study upon study that shows that's the headwaters of the Verde River, and they like to say, 'Well, that's not conclusive, so we want to go and pull it out,'" Davis says. "Well, Jesus, one of the last live rivers in the state of Arizona and you have no trouble drying it up so that you can keep growing, and that's the irritating part.
"This is the most arid state in the United States, and we don't have any clear answers of how much water we have, what quantity and quality are available."
Jen Scott's well has dropped five feet in the last year.
"The only external factor that would have changed the condition of the well would be the exorbitant sucking of water," she says.
Judging from the depth of her well and comparing it to the soil types found at corresponding levels of the Inscription Canyon well, she thinks she's down in the same aquifer.
"I hope that we are all on pocket water," she says. "I hope that the aquifer doesn't extend this far. But if the State Department of Water Resources doesn't have any evidence to refute that or support that, why should we feel confident about this fellow's report?"
As long as the state economy is addicted to limitless growth even in the face of limited water, that's the only assurance the law provides.
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.