Sun, Jan. 19

Yavapai-Apache, Fish & Wildlife join Big Chino pumping opposition

The Yavapai-Apache Nation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are the latest groups to adamantly oppose the Prescott tri-cities’ plan to pump water from the Big Chino aquifer.

Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee (WAC) members spent more time arguing over whether to read the Yavapai-Apache Nation letter Wednesday than Co-Chair Tony Gioia eventually spent reading it, as Gioia pointed out. They did not yet have a copy of the Fish & Wildlife letter.

Prescott City Council member Rob Behnke wanted to wait to read the Yavapai-Apache letter until WAC also had a copy of Prescott’s response letter to read.

Prescott Valley Public Works Director Larry Tarkowski said reading the letter out loud was inappropriate, but Verde Valley members of WAC responded that last month the group read out loud Salt River Project’s letter opposing the Big Chino pumping. They also previously read out loud a resolution that all the Verde Valley city and town councils signed to oppose the pumping.

Discussion of the letter arose through the WAC’s "Big Chino pumping issue" agenda item.

In past meetings, it has become abundantly clear that the WAC cannot reach consensus on the pumping issue.

Verde Valley members want to finish WAC-sponsored studies before the tri-cities move forward with the pumping. They worry it will reduce the flow of the Verde River through their downstream communities. The Prescott tri-cities want to forge ahead, using the Big Chino groundwater to supplement their water supply needs. They argue there is an amount they can pump without hurting the river.

"Might we take it off the agenda?" Tarkowski said of the "Big Chino pumping" item. "We all know we’re not going to reach consensus."

But Clarkdale Council member Rennie Radoccia said he wanted that item on the WAC agenda for the fifth month in a row so WAC can discuss new related issues, if they come up.

"I don’t want to see it disappear off the agenda," Radoccia added.

For example, the Yavapai-Apache Nation letter is a new issue, Radoccia said. The Nation, based in the Verde Valley, also is a WAC member.

"It is doubtful that your communities could be seeking further water from the Chino Valley in good faith," Yavapai-Apache attorney Joe Sparks wrote on Feb. 2 to the mayors of Prescott, Prescott Valley and Chino Valley. "You must know that to do so will damage water rights on the Verde River.

"In addition, the damage to the aquifer which supports the flow of the Verde may be irreparable. Therefore, nothing short of permanent injunctive relief would be adequate protection for the Nation and others who have rights to the Verde River."

Sparks noted that the Nation’s water rights on the river pre-date any tri-city water rights. He suggested the tri-cities spend money on conservation and recharge projects instead of the design and construction of a pipeline from the Big Chino aquifer to the Prescott Active Management Area (AMA).

"To avoid the inevitable consequences," he asks the tri-city majors to confirm in writing that they have ceased working on the project.

Prescott Attorney John Moffitt had a short response in his Feb. 13 letter.

"Unfortunately, the basic premise as set forth in your letter (i.e., that pumping from the Big Chino Aquifer adversely affects the flow of the Verde River) is erroneous," Moffitt wrote. "Furthermore, neither Prescott, Prescott Valley nor Chino Valley have any intention of undertaking any action which would adversely impact the flow of the Verde River."

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Field Supervisor David Harlow sent a letter to Prescott Mayor Sam Steiger on Feb. 16.

Harlow notes that the Verde River is critical habitat to several endangered and threatened species, and the agency has spent considerable time and money trying to recover those species.

Pumping from the Big Chino could result in a "taking" of these species, an action prohibited by federal law and subject to prosecution, Harlow said.

He suggests the communities work with his agency and others to develop a habitat conservation plan and apply for a Fish & Wildlife permit.

Since WAC members read the letter from the Salt River Project, a water supplier for the Phoenix metropolitan area with massive Verde River surface water rights, the tri-city mayors have returned SRP a joint letter of response, too.

The state Legislature granted the Prescott AMA communities the right to pump from the Big Chino aquifer to the north because they don’t have access to Central Arizona Project water like the metro area, the mayors wrote.

They repeat several times that they will work with other groups to make sure the pumping doesn’t adversely affect the Verde River’s flow.

Ironically, SRP President William Schrader’s January letter predicted that "fierce opposition" to the pumping plan would come not only from SRP, but also from downstream Indian tribes and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

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