Thu, April 09

Verde officials say Prescott <br>is destroying cooperative effort

The temperature gauge in the Verde Room of the county government’s Cottonwood offices literally rose four degrees during a chilly afternoon Wednesday, and it was easy to suspect the heated conversation caused it.

Verde Valley members of the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee took Prescott to task Wednesday for moving ahead on a plan to import Big Chino aquifer water.

Verde officials’ blood pumped just below boiling at the last committee meeting a month ago, after hearing that Prescott Mayor Sam Steiger wanted to pump Big Chino water to town. The idea involves providing Prescott water to the 4,000-home Del Rio development on the north side of Chino Valley, in exchange for Del Rio building a pipeline to the city’s well in the Big Chino aquifer.

Now that Verde officials heard the whole Prescott City Council apparently supported the idea last week, their blood boiled over Wednesday.

"This could turn into an all-out war," Yavapai County Board of Supervisors Chairman Chip Davis said.

The Verde Valley ire focused on Prescott City Council Member Rob Behnke, Prescott’s representative on the committee. Clarkdale Council Member Rennie Radoccia noted how Behnke and fellow council member John Steward said after the last committee meeting that Prescott has no plans to cut a deal with the Del Rio development.

Exchanges between Verde and Prescott area officials reached harsh levels several times. Behnke’s voice became shaky as he tried to defend Prescott’s actions and believed others were interrupting him.

Moving ahead with the import plan could mean the death knell for the 2-year-old water committee, Davis said.

Ironically, Davis started Wednesday’s water committee meeting by presenting the committee with the governor’s top annual rural leadership award.

"This is a symbol of accomplishment, an example of how differing sides have come together to find the best solutions to a state, county and local issue," Davis said.

But now the committee is at a crossroads, he said.

"Do we return the governor’s award, or do we do what is right?" Davis said. He referred to Steiger’s comment at last week’s council meeting that the city has conducted "clandestine" meetings about the import idea "because we didn’t want to rock any boats."

One of the major reasons behind the committee’s creation was to openly cooperate on studies about the Big Chino, to learn how pumping from it would affect the Verde River flow and downstream Verde Valley communities that depend upon it.

"If we don’t have the studies in place, the cart is entirely before the horse," Jerome Council Member Doree Christensen said.

Others agreed.

"If the pipeline goes in, it’s going to be darn hard to shut it off," Radoccia said. "I just think we’re in a whole different realm."

"That’s why we have to have the science beforehand," Cottonwood Mayor Ruben Jauregui said.

The committee needs to learn more from experts’ future studies before Prescott starts pumping Big Chino water, Verde Valley officials agreed.

"If you charge ahead, the Verde and others will block you and you will never get into the Big Chino," Davis warned. "Do you want that mountain to divide your best neighbor, or your worst enemy?"

There’s one thing the committee doesn’t need a study to know, Radoccia said: "We’ve got a big breach in our trust and confidence in this committee.

"What are we going to do about this? Are we going to disband…or do something constructive?"

Verde officials also questioned Prescott Valley and Chino Valley officials about Steiger’s statement in The Daily Courier that they are interested in getting in on the deal.

Prescott Valley Public Works Director Larry Tarkowski, co-chair of the water committee, said PV officials have never talked with Prescott about it. However, the tri-cities have long talked about how to achieve cooperative water management within the Prescott Active Management Area so the AMA can stop diminishing its groundwater supply, he said.

Phil Foster, the former Prescott AMA director who now is consulting with Chino about water issues, said he had one meeting with Del Rio developers last Tuesday.

More than one Verde representatives asked the Prescott tri-cities to commit to waiting for more conclusive studies about the Big Chino’s relationship with the river before pumping from it.

"Until there is a good-faith effort to put this on hold … this will only get worse," said Andy Groseta, who represents rural Verde Valley on the committee.

But Foster and Prescott Environmental Services Director Brad Huza said studies could go on forever without the tri-cities and Verde Valley agreeing on the pumping’s impact to the Big Chino.

"The geology is so complex, you could spend $15 million to $20 million and never come up with definitive answers," Huza said.

It would be foolish for Prescott to abandon its legal right to pump from the Big Chino, Foster said.

"There is a volume of water that can be pumped from the Big Chino without impacting the Verde River," he said. Pumping is the only way to find out how much Prescott can pump without creating that impact, Huza said.

Prescott would make sure the river gauge below the Big Chino well stayed constant, and make sure downstream users got their share, Huza said.

And the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would make sure Prescott doesn’t reduce the upper river’s flow, since the river contains endangered fish species, Huza and county Supervisor John Olsen said.

"These folks probably have more of a hammer on the river than everyone else combined," Huza said.

The real threat to the Upper Verde River Basin interests is farther downstream in the Phoenix area, Behnke and Tarkowski said.

The water committee’s discussion on the issue isn’t over yet. Committee Co-Chair Tony Gioia said he will write up a draft policy statement about the pumping idea, and circulate it to other committee members for their input.

Davis wasn’t sure what good that would do.

"Prescott is going to do what it wants to, anyway," Davis said.

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