SRP claim huge threat to Verde well owners

SRP serves approximately 1.5 million customers and gets 35 to 40 percent of its surface water from its water rights on the Verde River, estimates Dave Roberts, SRP's water rights and contracts manager. And 85 percent of SRP's total water supply comes from surface water. Its senior water rights date back as far as 1869 on the Verde.

So it's clear that SRP has a huge stake in how the court allocates the Verde River water through the long-running Gila River Basin adjudication process.

Fourteen years ago, the judge handling the gargantuan Gila River adjudication process brought the law up to date with what people have known for decades: groundwater and surface water in Arizona sometimes are connected.

Judge Stanley Goodfarb concluded then that wells in the saturated floodplain Holocene alluvium – generally, the sand-and-gravel areas along streams – are using surface water. Therefore, they are subject to the "first in time, first in right" surface water law of Arizona, instead of the groundwater law that allows citizens and companies to pump water without state-granted water rights.

The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed Goodfarb's conclusions in the fall of 2000.

The latest judge handling the adjudication process, Edward Ballinger, ordered the Arizona Department of Water Resources about three months ago to come up with a technical process to determine the location of the "subflow" zone that contains surface water. He gave the department three months to figure out a process.

Judge Ballinger also told the department to provide guidelines on how to decide which wells pump too little water to affect river flows, or so-called de-minimis uses.

SRP won't yet take a stance on whether some smaller wells in subflow zones should be able to continue pumping surface water without seeking surface water rights.

"If there's one residential well sitting out there, we won't have a problem with it," Roberts said. "The concern to us is a concentration of residential wells. At some point, a concentration adds up to a larger well."

Larger wells that serve municipalities and use surface water may have to buy senior water rights and transfer them, or trade effluent credits with senior downstream water rights holders.

"I think we're going to have a hard time grandfathering some of the larger wells," Roberts said.

SRP has no problem if water rights holders want to transfer their existing rights from irrigation to residential uses. However, the U.S. government may have a different position, Roberts said, since the Verde is habitat for endangered species.

Three Apache tribes in Arizona, including the Yavapai-Apache, already have filed a motion that asks the judge to conclude that the entire Gila River Basin already is fully appropriated. If a judge agrees, that would mean that no one could get new water rights on the Verde and other rivers and tributaries within the basin.

Both Judge Ballinger and SRP are unhappy with the department's newly completed report on subflow areas.

SRP's written response to the report complains that it doesn't describe the proposed process for mapping out subflow areas, and it doesn't offer a schedule for using that process in each watershed within the Gila River Basin, including the Verde.

SRP – which makes it clear it's tired of waiting – is asking the court to adopt a schedule and force the department to comply with it.

Until the state determines which wells are using surface water, downstream water-rights holders have no way to stop well owners from pumping surface water, SRP's court document notes.

SRP suggests the department start the process with the Verde and San Pedro river watersheds, finishing both by March 2002. Then the court could commence hearings about the subflow zone areas by the end of 2002.

SRP has submitted to the court its own map of the Verde Valley "subflow" area that SRP believes constitutes gravel-type rock containing surface water. SRP's groundwater hydrology expert, Jon Ford, created the map.

The Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee reviewed that map last week. Co-Chair Tony Gioia, who is Camp Verde's vice mayor, said he was surprised at the size of SRP's subflow area.

The committee wants its technical advisors to look at the Verde basin's unique characteristics, and help it decide how to respond to the department's report. The committee will have to register its comments through an entity involved in the adjudication process, such as a well or surface water owner.

Water Advisory Committee Coordinator John Munderloh estimates that SRP's map of the Verde Valley subflow area includes 3,391 residential wells and 109 larger wells that pump more than 35 gallons per minute. The subflow zone stretches along a 23,164-acre area along both sides of the river.

Most of the Verde Valley's wells are near the river. SRP calculates that 45 percent of all the valley's wells are located in the subflow zone, which spreads across only one percent of the Verde Valley's land mass, according to Munderloh's calculations based on SRP's map.

Those wells in SRP's subflow zone map include some of the Cottonwood water company wells that serve the valley's largest municipality.

Those Verde water company wells that aren't in SRP's estimated subflow zone still may have created "cones of depression" in the ground that will prove they are pulling in surface water, Roberts notes. The court also has charged the state with choosing an appropriate cone of depression test.

The water companies serving Cottonwood, Camp Verde and Verde Santa Fe probably are going to have to seek new water rights one way or another, Roberts predicted.

"We told them a long, long time ago not to sell their CAP (Central Arizona Project) allocation," which they could have traded with downstream water-rights holders, Roberts said.

While SRP hasn't mapped what parts of the upper Verde River Basin it thinks are in the subflow zones, Roberts said that area could include part of the Granite Creek Basin – especially if the judge determines that the state should base the subflow zone on pre-human conditions, before Willow and Watson lakes existed.

Large wells near the Verde's headwaters are in more solid bedrock. SRP has a different problem with those wells, asserting some are drawing water directly out of the flowing river instead of using water that feeds the river.

SRP's court filing spends a lot of time detailing the "leaps and bounds" population growth that has occurred in Yavapai County since Goodfarb concluded 14 years ago that surface water and groundwater are connected.

It was the fastest-growing county in northern Arizona in the 1990s, according to Northern Arizona University's Economic Monitor.

The state concluded in 1999 that the Prescott Active Management Area is using more water than its aquifer can replenish, SRP's court document notes.

"Despite these growing concerns about the increased pumping of underground water, certain interests in Yavapai County are continuing to promote development and expansion of population and pumping," SRP's court filing states.

It cites Chino Valley's Web site as an example of this promotion.

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