Tempers hovered just below boiling Wednesday when Prescott Mayor Sam Steiger attended a Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee meeting to explain his plan to pump groundwater from the Big Chino aquifer.
Verde Valley representatives on the committee said Prescott should wait until more studies show the potential effects of such pumping, or Prescott is taking a unilateral action that is contrary to the goals of the committee.
"It flies totally in the face of everything we’re trying to do here," said committee member Doree Christensen, a Jerome Town Council member.
County supervisors formed the committee early last year to ease water-issue tensions between communities in the Prescott Active Management Area and Verde Valley. They work on building consensus through the committee, and their focus from the start has been to study areas such as the Big Chino aquifer near the Verde River’s headwaters, to make sure Prescott AMA actions don’t negatively impact the river’s flow through the Verde Valley.
Steiger told the committee that Prescott needs to build a water line to the Big Chino aquifer near Paulden and start pumping water, or he worries it will lose the right to do so. A state law championed by former Sen. Carol Springer, R-Prescott, gives Prescott the right to import Big Chino water.
"Until we start pumping, we’re not going to know the impact," Steiger said. "We have the statutory authority to do this. If we keep stalling and don’t do it, we’re going to lose it."
But some Verde Valley officials said that’s a backward way of doing things.
"To pump it and see what happens…that’s not what we’re about here," said committee member Rennie Radoccia, a Clarkdale council member. "If Prescott puts that pipe in the ground, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to stop that flow.
"I just see us at odds with each other worse than we are now."
Prescott is working on an agreement with the owners of the Del Rio Ranch near Chino Valley, Steiger said. The ranch owners want to build a 4,000-home development but don’t have enough water. Del Rio could pay for the multi-million-dollar pipeline in exchange for city water. If the pumping reduces the river’s flow, the law says Prescott would have to stop it, Steiger added after the meeting.
Chino Valley also stands to benefit from the Del Rio development, by furthering its goal to build its own water and sewer systems. Del Rio wants to annex into Chino Valley, and Del Rio is offering things that include an over-sized wastewater treatment plant to serve other parts of Chino Valley.
Homes will develop in the Big Chino area to the north of Chino Valley anyway, and a central water supply through Prescott is preferable to wells at each home that are exempt from government controls, said Prescott City Council Member Tom Reilly, a former committee member.
"You can work with us on this, or you can work against us," Reilly told committee members. "There are some rights involved here…you’re pretty quick to try to take away someone else’s rights."
That’s when Greg Kornrumph of the Salt River Project jumped into the fray.
"Actually, there’s a question about the legal right, too," Kornrumph said.
"There’s the enemy," Steiger retorted.
"That has been sitting among you for months," Reilly added.
Kornrumph followed Steiger out of the meeting to remind him of the Salt River Project’s position, that Prescott only has the right to pump 500 acre-feet annually from the Big Chino without compensating downstream users, not 8,500 acre-feet as Prescott contends. The Salt River Project has some of the most senior water rights on the Verde, and uses them for Valley of the Sun residents.
Prescott should wait for the completion of committee-sponsored studies before thinking about pumping Big Chino water, Kornrumph agreed.
Prescott Council Member Rob Behnke, who represents the city on the Water Advisory Committee, said after the meeting that the council has no plans to cut such a deal with Del Rio. Fellow council member John Steward agreed, and emphasized Steiger doesn’t speak for the council.
The council hasn’t talked about the deal in a public session. Steiger said after the committee meeting that he thinks most Prescott City Council members will agree with his idea, once they understand it.
"I’ve been chasing this one for 30 years," Steiger said of the idea to pump Big Chino water to Prescott. "I know more about it than anybody."
Water Advisory Committee Co-Chair Tony Gioia, a Camp Verde Town Council member, advocated a committee stance against pumping Big Chino water until committee-sponsored studies are completed.
Other Verde Valley committee members voiced agreement that Prescott should wait until studies are completed, including Christensen and Sedona City Council Member Anita MacFarlane. For example, a U.S. Geological Survey study now underway aims to help answer some of the questions about how the pumping would affect the river’s flow.
Prescott’s three consecutive representatives on the committee all have agreed that science should dictate members’ actions, Gioia added.
But committee Co-Chair Larry Tarkowski, the Prescott Valley Public Works director, urged the committee to ask its technical advisory subcommittee to study Prescott’s plans before taking a position. He urged committee members to "keep emotions out of it."
The committee eventually agreed to let its advisory committee look at the technical aspects of Steiger’s proposal, then bring up the subject again at its next meeting in a month.
Phil Foster, former Prescott AMA director who now works for Chino Valley, said the AMA’s technical advisory group is working on a total water management plan for the AMA that includes pumping the Big Chino and a mitigation plan for it. The mitigation plan would need to be approved by groups such as Salt River Project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, environmental groups and downstream users, he said.
"Pumping the Big Chino is not contrary to science, it’s part of science," Foster said.
The Prescott AMA already pumps groundwater from the Little Chino Basin inside the AMA, and that feeds the river too, said committee member Russ St. Pierre, a Chino Valley Council member. So the question is not where the pumping takes place, it’s how much, he said.