Queen Creek water deal exposes Arizona’s most fundamental problems

opinion

Roughly a thousand acre-feet of water won’t make or break the Colorado River.

But for many who live in counties that border the river, even losing a few drops of water to central Arizona poses a major threat to their way of life.

They know this isn’t the first time that thirsty interests have tried to move water east. And, presuming Queen Creek acquires 1,078 acre-feet from GSC Farm LLC in La Paz County, they fear it will embolden other users to make a play for other, potentially bigger chunks of river water.

Maybe it won’t be a free-for-all

Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke has tried to downplay the precedent set by this deal, the first of its kind to receive a positive recommendation from the department (though the Secretary of the Interior has the final say).

All previous attempts to move water to thirsty developments on the outskirts of metro Phoenix have died a horrible death, in no small part because on-river communities have raised holy heck about them.

Buschatzke notes in his letter to Interior that there are many issues that could kill similar transfers in places like Yuma. And he makes plain that any future transfers will have to leave enough water with the land for future development.

They can’t simply take the water contract and leave the land high and dry, as Queen Creek and GSC Farm had planned to do.

Indeed, Buschatzke essentially went King Solomon on the deal, recommending that roughly half of GSC Farm’s water stay with the property and half go to Queen Creek to help lessen its reliance on groundwater.

But this is bound to embolden others

But there’s no doubt that if the town gets this water, other interests will soon follow … if some aren’t already reaching out to on-river water holders, cash in hand.

Well-funded, powerful investors have long been buying up land for its water in places like Colorado and Arizona. They know they’ll eventually find willing buyers as supplies dwindle.

Particularly in places like Queen Creek, which mostly developed on a finite supply of groundwater. Years ago, when the mechanism was created to do this, everyone expected there would be excess Central Arizona Project water to replenish the groundwater that subdivisions pumped.

But that water is rapidly diminishing, sending all sorts of interests scrambling to diversify their supplies, and in a lot more places than Queen Creek.

The problem is there isn’t much “easy” water – the kind you could get your hands on today, at a relatively decent price – left to be found. Everyone is vying for the same, limited sources.

Who will make the next move?

For the right price, there may be plenty of private on-river contractors willing to part with their water. But few entities have been willing to undergo the lengthy, intense public process that is involved with transferring a Colorado River contract, particularly when ADWR has until this point always said no.

That’s why this process has been and will continue to be so closely watched – particularly in places like the Pinal Active Management Area, where residential growth has basically stopped until stakeholders can figure out how to erase several million acre-feet in unmet groundwater demand.

It’s widely recognized that conservation alone won’t be enough to do so. Long term, they’re going to have to find additional, renewable supplies.

So, for now, folks on both sides of the Queen Creek deal are warily waiting, wondering who will be next to make a move. Watch the hedge funds, I’m told, to see whether they start pouncing on land. If they do, you know this is a watershed moment.

But even if they don’t, there still could be significant ripple effects.

The festering problems we must solve

We already know the on-river communities will continue to fight this and any other transfers that may arise. State Rep. Regina Cobb, who represents La Paz County, is calling on the feds to conduct a full environmental review on the Queen Creek deal. She is expected to reintroduce legislation next session to outlaw similar fourth-priority Colorado River transfers.

Mohave County Supervisor Gary Watson also has proposed that those who want to transfer their contracts be required to leave a percentage of the water in Lake Mead.

Meanwhile, some predict that the Queen Creek deal could push the going rate for water higher and faster than it would have otherwise, complicating efforts for others who aren’t looking to the river to fill their needs.

Perhaps more troubling is the very real potential for this on-river animus to spill into other parts of water policy, further complicating efforts to rethink how we use groundwater in both urban and rural areas.

That would be a shame, because a dwindling supply of groundwater is arguably a major driver of this on/off-river battle. 

The sad reality is we don’t have enough water for everyone, and try as we might, we haven’t found a way to keep growing without tapping finite supplies.

Arizona must get off those finite supplies. We know that. But how and when – and who gets the water – are questions best resolved if we work together.

Let’s hope this deal doesn’t grind that tough but essential work to a halt.

Reach Allhands at [email protected] On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

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