Today: Jul 08 , 2020

Opinion: Water, Water Everywhere

30 September 2018   Bill Williams
Erda Estremera

Water: A Controversial Issue

One of the most talked about subjects in Yavapai County, AZ is water. News media on both sides of Mingus Mountain tend to use the most sensational statements about water nearly every month because the squeaky wheels get the most grease.

Mingus Mountain is important because it causes a major water source on both its northeast and southwest sides to change course. And the squeaky wheels have been forming committees for several years in order to discuss how much water is in the Verde River before it collides with Mingus Mountain, and later, when it runs through Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Camp Verde and becomes a Phoenix water supply.

Naysayers will tell you with thousands of building permits being granted by Prescott and Prescott Valley that water will run short. But municipalities cannot grant building permits unless the subpision plat has obtained a 100-year Assured Water Supply from the State.

“It’s not as simple as saying we are running out of water, or not running out of water, or is there enough water,” said Jamie P. Macy, Supervisory Hydrologist, at the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Arizona Water Science Center, in Flagstaff.

Macy refuses to “get sensational” like the multitude of water study committees because we just don’t know how much water we have, yet. Golder Associates, Inc. has been hired under contract with City of Prescott, Prescott Valley and Salt River Project to construct a detailed groundwater model for an enormous sub-basin of water near Paulden, AZ. The model and its report are due in May of 2020.

Not long ago, four water committees in Yavapai County were working on the same issues at the same time and some municipalities had to pay to join. They all differed on how much water the county had, members harped about lack of rain, and most members were motivated by stopping growth such as commercial and residential building.


“Claiming that we are running out of water is a viewpoint touted by a number of small activist groups, but is not the majority viewpoint,” said Cottonwood Water Resource Manager and former Arizona Department of Water Resources manager Tom Whitmer. “What makes these claims difficult to deal with is that many of the claims being made that sections of the Verde River will go dry in the next 10-to-20 years are being made by seemingly credentialed individuals who tend to get lots of space in the newspaper. For many, stopping growth seems to be the ultimate goal and the only tool at their disposal to stop or slow down the growth is the river.

“Stopping growth through the legislative or planning and zoning process has thus far proved futile so the only other means at their disposal is to convince people the river is going dry as a result of pumping in the hopes that it might dissuade others from moving here.”

Cottonwood was a member of the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee, before it was terminated by the County. Whitmer now relies on sound research and methodology when he describes the water trove near Paulden known as the Big Chino Sub-basin, and the Verde Valley as having enough water to keep Verde Valley residents in water for hundreds of years, even if it never rained again.

Whitmer can make that claim because estimates of water in storage in the basin down to a depth of 1,200 feet by the USGS and ADWR have ranged from 13-to-28 million acre-feet. There is a big and little aquifer and estimates for the Big Chino alone have ranged from seven-to-ten million acre feet down to a depth of 1,200 feet and some sections of the basin are as deep as 3-to-4 thousand feet.

To put that in perspective, “The Town of Prescott Valley pumped 5,600 acre-feet in 2017,” said John Munderloh, Water Resources Manager for Prescott Valley, AZ.

The City of Prescott pumped 6,771 acre-feet,” added Leslie Graser, Water Resource Manager for Prescott. “This is the volume that was reported to the State of Arizonaas required in Annual Water Withdrawal and Use Reports.”

The Verde Valley area benefits from the same water shed that recharges the Big Chino, as well as Oak Creek, Beaver Creek, Sycamore, Fossil Creek and West Clear Creek which help supply the Verde River. Only a couple of towns in the Verde Valley provide water to customers. The rest are either served by a private water company or have their own private well.

The towns of Cottonwood and Clarkdale have actually reduced pumping by almost 30 percent over the last five-to-ten years due to water conservation and upgrades to their water systems, according to Whitmer.

When talking about the use of groundwater, it is important to understand that people aren’t the only users of groundwater. According to Whitmer, the single biggest user of groundwater in the Verde Valley, based on a USGS study, is the riparian forest that encompasses the Verde River. Whitmer isn’t touting the removal of the riparian forest, but did indicate the removal of some of the woody vegetation in the upper portions of the watershed could potentially be beneficial to the groundwater basin and ultimately the river.

According to Whitmer, the Upper Verde River Watershed Protection Coalition is currently conducting a pilot project to determine the benefits of thinning the woody vegetation such as junipers in the upper portion of the watershed. Studies conducted by a number of agencies thus far have indicated that thinning forests and brush can increase water recharge and enhance runoff.

The problem for Verde Valley residents is not a lack of water. It is determining who owns the water.

“A water rights lawsuit that was filed in 1974, nicknamed “The Adjudication” has 57,000 water rights claims by 32,000 parties,” said Sarah Porter, of the Kyl Institute for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

But with help from the late Joseph Feller - former Arizona State University professor - this reporter was able to track a lawsuit back to 1905 when a farmer near the Salt River filed suit against Indian tribes and other farmers. In stepped lawyers and the Salt River Water Users and voila, the first water right was decreed.

Court records obtained by this reporter show the seemingly “never ending” lawsuit has 78,000 claims and 849,000 summonses were sent out. In 2004 Salt River Project – the Phoenix-based utility which claims water rights all the way to the head waters of the Verde River – filed motions against five water users groups from the Verde Valley.

Porter co-authored the report The Price of Uncertainty. The report says new wells continue to be drilled in areas that stand to be most affected by the Adjudication. And before they drill, land-owners do not receive detailed notice or information that they may not have any right to the water supplies they’re counting on. Real estate development and growth are not the only things impacted by water rights uncertainty.

Some Arizona communities recognize that the environmental attributes of a nearby river or stream make their community special, but until the Adjudication is resolved those communities lack a mechanism for implementing a management plan to protect those attributes.

Arizonans and municipalities might have to enter the lawsuit to be certain. Not all water rights in Yavapai county have been legislated and The Adjudication complicates the legislature’s authority. It is important to note that, by law, Yavapai County government cannot get involved in the lawsuit or in providing drinking water to residents, or even govern water wells in unincorporated parts of the county.

Arizona law has made it very easy to sink your own well on your own property without concern that any government entity is looking at your pump gauge, or even inspecting for arsenic. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulates drinking water standards.

Here is a partial list of entities who believe they have a stake in the Adjudication matters:

  • Salt River Water Users Association
  • Salt River Project
  • Federal agencies
  • Copper mines
  • Verde River Ditch companies
  • Arizona tribes, towns and municipalities
  • Friends of Verde River Greenway (Verde River Basin Partnership)
  • Upper Verde River Watershed Protection Coalition

You acquire water rights by past use perted from a river, past pumping from the sub-flow, or the transfer of water rights.

Porter points out that an Arizona Supreme Court stated that water pumped from the ground, and surface water, are legally connected when the pumped water would otherwise form part of the surface or subsurface streamflow.

Yavapai County Judge Mackey and Maricopa County Judge Brain have held hearings in their respective courtrooms, and the Arizona Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court have entertained motions on the water lawsuit. Cochise County Superior Court has also held hearings on the matter. We may not see an end to The Adjudication lawsuit in our lifetime.

Graser is quick to point out that the city has not reached safe yield, as defined by the ADWR and its Active Management Areas (AMAs). A 1980 law decided that, since we are heavily relying on mined (or pumped) water, we need to aggressively manage the state’s groundwater.

Surface water is what you can see flowing down the rivers and streams. Groundwater is what we pump.

In the Phoenix, Prescott, and Tucson AMAs, the primary management goal is safe-yield by the year 2025. Safe-yield is accomplished when no more groundwater is being withdrawn than is being replaced annually. Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Camp Verde are not currently included in an AMA.

Tomorrow, Part Two: The Answer is the 30 mile long pipe.

Bill Williams earned a Master of Science Degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State University, an undergrad degree from ASU, and a Paralegal degree from Yavapai College; and wrote a book about a notorious murder trial in Prescott titled “Murder by Guile.”