Dressed in his pale yellow golf sweater and jogging shoes, Bob Anderson, a seventy-year-old retiree from Chicago, fits right in with the other retirees in Carefree.
Like his neighbors, he has golf on his mind. But there's a difference.
In the world of Arizona water politics, the retired real-estate lawyer finds himself allied with environmentalists against thirsty golf courses owned by an oil company and developers.
Town Councilmember Bob Anderson is a leader of an effort to save Carefree's rapidly dwindling underground water supply from the golf courses. It's not that he's against golf--he plays it himself occasionally. But he worries that Carefree's future growth will be stunted because the courses will suck up all the water.
Anderson helped persuade the Carefree Town Council to finally sue a golf-course developer last year after a long-standing water dispute. On February 26, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge will conduct a hearing on whether the water should be shut off to three golf courses.
Desert Mountain Properties, which is controlled by a Mobil Oil subsidiary in partnership with corporations headed by north Scottsdale developer Lyle Anderson (no relation to Bob Anderson), owns 8,000 acres in a section of north Scottsdale that borders Carefree. Currently, there are about fifty homes and three golf courses--named Renegade, Cochise, and Geronimo--on the posh development.
The Desert Mountain-Carefree battle sheds light on the failure of a 1980 law aimed at preserving the state's groundwater supply. It shows how that very law can be turned around to deplete Arizona's precious underground aquifers. And it reveals how the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the agency formed to preserve the state's groundwater, meekly stands by while the far-northeast Valley's drinking-water source is depleted daily.
In court papers, Desert Mountain Properties acknowledges it pumps from 371,000 to 1.89 million gallons of drinkable water from the aquifer each day. Carefree claims that the average is 1.5 million gallons a day.
All of this infuriates local environmentalists, who wonder why Mobil Oil didn't pay for a pipeline from the Central Arizona Project canal to irrigate what they call Desert Mountain's three "abortions in the desert."
"This is licensed lunacy," local desert advocate Geoffrey Platts recently wrote. Last March, Platts and other environmentalists conducted a well-publicized protest against Desert Mountain by picketing in front of the development's gates during a golf tournament.
Lyle Anderson, Desert Mountain's director, would not comment to New Times. But Desert Mountain's spokesperson Erik Filsinger says the company has been a "good corporate citizen" that has "been working very hard" to solve the area's groundwater needs.
The conflict began in 1985, when the state water department announced it would temporarily allow Desert Mountain to pump water for golf courses from the aquifer, which is the main source of drinking water for Carefree and adjacent Cave Creek. The state wanted to permit Desert Mountain to pump underground water for golf courses until 1991. This angered Carefree officials, who called for a public hearing to block the pumping.
At that point, Lyle Anderson wrote a letter that is the key to the current lawsuit. In the 1986 letter, Lyle Anderson promised Carefree that if it stopped protesting underground pumping, Desert Mountain would build a pipeline from the Central Arizona Project canal "no later than January 1, 1990." But there was a caveat. The pipeline would be built "subject to our being able to conclude satisfactory contracts with necessary governmental authorities."
Carefree assumed the CAP pipeline would be used for golf-course irrigation by Desert Mountain. So the town agreed with Desert Mountain's proposal.
"If there was any fault on the part of the town, it was to depend on good faith," laments Bob Anderson. In 1989, when he was appointed to the town council, it was clear that Desert Mountain was not going to build the pipeline by 1990. Town officials worried that the company might not build it at all.
By 1989, the aquifer's water level was dropping by ten to fifteen feet each year, and Carefree discovered too late that Desert Mountain had used the state's groundwater law to its permanent advantage.
What happened was that Desert Mountain got in the water business by quietly transferring its wells to a water company that it owned. Then it asked for and received a completely different permit from the state. This new permit, which followed state law to the letter, allowed Desert Mountain to suck up groundwater for its golf courses indefinitely.
By 1990, Desert Mountain had not built the CAP pipeline it had promised. So the town decided to sue, claiming that Lyle Anderson's letter promising the pipeline was actually a contract that had not been honored.
"This lawsuit results in part from promises made and not kept," says Bob Anderson. "This is not a water case. It is a contract case." In the lawsuit, the town contends that Desert Mountain has hindered economic development because other developers can no longer obtain a guarantee of 100 years of water supply. State law says developers can't build big projects without such a guarantee.
Desert Mountain is stung by the town's legal maneuvers. In court papers, the company says over and over that Carefree won't cut it any slack as it attempts to wean itself off groundwater. The company says it tried to get a yearlong extension on the pipeline, which Carefree refused. It says it is negotiating with Scottsdale for effluent to water the golf courses "in quantities sufficient to meet all the golf-course watering needs at Desert Mountain." Desert Mountain also denies that Lyle Anderson's 1986 letter promised to use CAP water. Or that there was any promise to wean the golf courses off groundwater.
"There is no more of a hint of impropriety in using groundwater for golf courses than there is in using it to wash cars or grow melons or hose off the sidewalk," the company says in court papers.
Bureaucrats at the state water department admit the situation in Carefree is "critical." "We acknowledge they have a serious groundwater problem," says Frank Barrios, who directs the unit that manages the Carefree area. "But there are certain limitations on what we can do. You have a right to draw water as long as you meet certain criteria. Everything done out there is legal. But we now have a situation where the water level is dropping seriously."
Barrios won't blame the golf courses for the problem, although hydrology reports commissioned by Carefree do.
"I won't point fingers," says Barrios. "That's not the job of a state agency."
But he acknowledges that after one area golf course, Eagle Creek in Cave Creek, hooked into CAP water last year, the water table began to rise once again.
Just as soon as a pipeline carries CAP water and effluent to the golf courses, the water table will be naturally replenished over time, says Barrios. People in Carefree "need to be more patient," he adds.
But the Carefree Town Council has high hopes of getting Desert Mountain's pumps shut off, at least temporarily.
Last December, in a futile attempt to get the Arizona Court of Appeals to throw out the case, Desert Mountain accused Carefree of practicing "economic extortion by manipulation of the news media." "The town knows that the peak season for the sale of residential units . . . is fast approaching, and apparently hopes that the threat of adverse publicity might require Desert Mountain to settle its claim with the town irrespective of its merits," the developer told the court.
Erik Filsinger says Desert Mountain was "kinda surprised when certain individuals in Carefree wanted to pursue a lawsuit. It detracted us from the long-term and mutually beneficial solution" that would reduce the reliance on the aquifer so "that nobody would have any problems."
Originally, Desert Mountain was to foot the bill for the pipeline--now at an estimated cost of $11 million. Now, the company wants to work out deals for spreading the bill around.
Filsinger says his company is a "leader" in efforts to put together a state-sanctioned Community Service District, which would sell bonds to investors to build a pipeline to bring effluent and CAP water to all the golf courses in the area.
"We are not the only golf courses drawing groundwater," Filsinger says, pointing out that Arizona has had four drought years and that there are several thirsty courses in north Scottsdale. However, he acknowledges that Desert Mountain uses nearly one-half of the groundwater now being pumped out of the aquifer.
Desert Mountain says it wants to turn over its groundwater pumping rights to Scottsdale in exchange for getting hooked up to city water. But that would give Scottsdale access to Carefree's water supply.
Filsinger realizes that many environmentalists think Desert Mountain is acting without conscience. "We've followed the law," he says. "We feel we've been a responsible citizen. We've been trying to seek a long-term solution to bring in water supplies from outside. That's what we've been committed to all along."
By 1989, the aquifer's water level was dropping by ten to fifteen feet each year.
"I won't point fingers," says the water official. "That's not the job of a state agency.