Water farming is quickly becoming the Valley cities' version of the pet rock--an Eighties fad that just doesn't cut it in the Nineties.

No water will ever be transferred out of southwestern Arizona and perpetually thirsty cities like Phoenix and Scottsdale will eventually sell their rural land holdings, rural lawmakers are gleefully predicting. Water experts inside and outside Phoenix City Hall cite escalating costs of water farming and the city's lack of political clout.

As late as last year's legislative session, lobbyists and insiders were confidently predicting that water transfers from rural Arizona to the big cities were "inevitable."

But now even Mayor Paul Johnson acknowledges that Phoenix has received a political whipping in the water area and says the city has "very little" influence with the Arizona State Legislature. Johnson says Phoenix's $30 million investment into its McMullen Valley water farm in La Paz County is now "at risk."

Representative Herb Guenther, a Yuma County Democrat and vocal opponent of water transfers, says the turning point of the political battle actually came eighteen months ago. Phoenix, Scottsdale and other Valley cities were feverishly promoting a House bill to ensure the cities' right to transfer water.

Guenther says the cities tried to stifle criticism from most of rural Arizona by agreeing to protect the groundwater of every area except La Paz County and a few other small areas of southwestern Arizona. The bill passed the House, but during hearings in the Senate's Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, witnesses described water transfers as the "rape" of the rural county's future. In one emotional plea, Marie Green of La Paz County likened the bill to taking food from a small child. Urban lawmakers bailed out, and the bill went down on a 7 to 4 vote. Six of the lawmakers who voted against the bill were from urban areas.

The cities now are scrambling to find other ways of proving that they have the 100-year supply of water that state law requires. "The political climate has dramatically changed since we bought the water farm in 1986, and the city is trying to avoid those political problems," says Phoenix water adviser Bill Chase. Mayor Johnson sounds bitter.

"Effectively, we're being punished for playing within the rules," Johnson says. "The 1980 groundwater legislation told MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 us that McMullen Valley was the way to go. . . . I don't know if we were lied to, but we were misled. We were trying to purchase water to prove the 100-year supply. We did that. Now, there's a backlash against what everyone knew was going to happen."

Johnson says the cities' political clout is diminishing because "the rural interests are united and the urban interests are divided." He refuses to point any fingers but says, "The new legislators aren't up to speed, and very few veterans have been staking out positions on the side of the City of Phoenix. When we begin counting noses, it's very hard to see where our interests will be protected."

Somewhat mournfully, Johnson adds, "We're under siege right now. We know that politically we're not winning this argument right now either publicly or at the legislature, and we know we're going to have a tough time. But, we have to protect the financial interest of our taxpayers."

To show how much the climate has changed, rural lawmaker Herb Guenther points to a recent meeting with Phoenix to discuss what water legislation would be acceptable to the rural areas. Such a meeting would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Guenther also says an all-day "instructional" meeting with then-Mayor Terry Goddard last Presidents' Day gave additional impetus for a change.

"If the mayor didn't know what has happening before that meeting, he sure knew afterwards," says Guenther.

What's happening now, say Phoenix officials, is that the city is backing off plans to suck 30,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from its water ranch to supply city residents. The city is "exploring alternatives" such as acquiring excess Central Arizona Project agricultural water and negotiating with Native American tribes for water leasing rights to make up what it says is a shortfall. Without new sources of water, Chase says, the city wouldn't be able to attract industry and accommodate population growth.

Scottsdale got national publicity in the Eighties when it became the first Valley city to purchase rural land for water rights. Now, however, Scottsdale is backing away from that strategy, says Barbara Goldberg, an assistant city attorney who works on water issues. Scottsdale is talking about selling Planet Ranch in northern La Paz County to the federal government. The city's also negotiating for water with neighboring

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J. W. Casserly