The Abra Water Co. of Paulden will not become part of the City of Prescott’s water portfolio.
But that doesn’t end the city’s continued interest in the Paulden-area Big Chino Basin.
Mayor Sam Steiger said Prescott is poised to begin "very soon" on the construction of a water pipeline that will transport water to Prescott from one of the wells the city owns in Paulden.
The Big Chino Basin, a large store of groundwater that lies under the Paulden community, has been a topic of contention for years. Although the city has the authority to pump and transport 8,500 acre-feet of water per year from the Big Chino, questions consistently come up about whether extensive pumping in the area would affect the flow of the Verde River.
So far, none of the council’s recent discussions about water rights have taken place in public. The Arizona Open Meeting Law allows the council to discuss in private the purchase of real estate, and the council has conducted at least two executive sessions on the purchase of water rights in the past several months.
After an executive session last week, however, Steiger reported that the council decided it will not pursue what had been a proposal to buy the Abra Water Co.
"We have determined that (the purchase of Abra) is not in the best interests of the community," Steiger said, "and we’re not going to pursue it."
The council apparently based that decision on a report that it received from water attorney Carlos Ronstadt, who attended the executive session and has been studying the pros and cons of buying Abra.
The proposal to buy Abra dates back at least to last spring. In April, the city entered a retainer agreement with Ronstadt of the Snell & Wilmer law firm of Tucson to conduct a study of Abra Water.
Because the contract with Ronstadt was for an amount not to exceed $10,000, it did not have to go to the full City Council for approval. (The city manager has the authority to approve contracts for as much as $10,000). So far, the city has paid Ronstadt about $4,200.
In March, Ronstadt submitted a written proposal to the city, in which he stated: "Our services will include drafting a list of issues that should be considered by Prescott as it makes its decision whether to purchase Abra."
The proposed purchase apparently piqued the council members’ interest enough for them to agree to add several million dollars to the city’s alternative water fund to cover the purchase of water rights.
During June budget discussions, Steiger persuaded the council to add about $3 million to the fund, in the event a deal was to go through on the purchase of water rights. To raise the money, the council discussed raising the alternative water fee that all Prescott water customers pay each month on their water bills.
At that time, Steiger would not disclose the name of the water rights the city was considering for purchase, maintaining that a public discussion about the matter was premature.
That led to speculation in the community about what the council had in mind. Steiger hotly denies rumors that he ever had a financial interest in Abra Water or any of the company’s water rights.
"That is absolute crap," Steiger said. Although he acknowledged that he did offer to sell water rights to the city in the 1980s, Steiger said that was a "different well," and it was unrelated to Abra.
He also disputed the notion that Prescott already has plenty of water to serve the growth it will experience in coming years.
"Anybody who’s stupid enough to ask that question doesn’t deserve an answer," Steiger said of queries about whether Prescott needs any more water rights. "If we don’t have adequate water supplies, we’re going to suffer."
Even so, city officials have long maintained that Prescott’s available groundwater and its alternative water sources would support the city’s growth for well into the future.
Environmental Services Director Brad Huza recently indicated that Prescott’s current, undisputed water supplies could serve a population of as many as 132,000 people.
As Huza explained it, the city has 11,000 acre-feet of "physical availability." That is the groundwater that the city had committed to new subdivisions before the Arizona Department of Water Resources imposed new groundwater rules in 1998. The physical availability can provide water for about 66,000 people.
In addition, the city has a number of "alternative water" sources, which involve water from somewhere other than groundwater within the Prescott Active Management Area (AMA).
First on that list is the credit the city gets for recharging effluent or treated wastewater back into the aquifer. Based on the 66,000 population from the physical availability, Huza estimates the effluent credits at about 7,000 acre-feet per year. That would support about 41,800 additional people, he said.
Next on the list is the 1,500 acre-feet of water that the city eventually will recharge into the aquifer from Willow and Watson lakes. That will not kick in as an alternative water source until 2020, after the city completes its irrigation supply commitment to the Chino Valley Irrigation District, which was part of the city’s agreement to purchase the lakes. Huza said the extra 1,500 acre-feet will support about 9,000 people.
The city also owns land and water rights at Del Rio Springs, which is north of Chino Valley and outside of the AMA. The city has the right to use 2,700 acre-feet of water there, which would serve about 16,000 people.
On top of the 132,000 people that those water sources could serve, the city also has the authority to pump 8,500 acre-feet from the Big Chino, Huza said, which could serve as many as 50,000 more people.
But a number of questions surround the Big Chino rights, including the cost of a pipeline, and the level of opposition that pumping so close to the headwaters of the Verde River would generate.
Steiger maintains that the city could go a long way toward answering both questions by moving ahead with a pipeline project now. As he explained it, the pipeline would run from the city-owned Dugan well in Paulden to the city’s water-well field in Chino Valley, which connects into existing pipelines to Prescott.
Steiger pointed out that the city already has the several-million-dollar allotment in its budget for alternative water. That won’t go away with the decision not to purchase Abra. "We’ll still need that money for the pipeline," he said.
The details of the pipeline project are still "a couple of months away," Steiger said, and he could not estimate the cost of the pipeline. "It will not be inexpensive, but it will be well worth it," he said.
By getting the pipeline in operation, Steiger maintained, the city will prove that pumping from the Big Chino will not affect the flow of the Verde River. "Our feeling is we’ll start pumping and prove it’s doing no harm," Steiger said.
The matter has yet to go before the full City Council in a public meeting for an official vote.
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