Local leaders call for return of Water Advisory Commitee
VERDE VALLEY -- Some Yavapai County residents have been calling in advocacy columns for the Yavapai Water Advisory Committee to be restored in one form or another.
One is Gary Beverly, a retired PhD chemist who taught at Yavapai College and has been active on the non-profit Citizens Water Advisory Group that advocates for sustainable decision making for Verde River protection. Several others have responded to Beverly's call to restore the WAC and its technical advisors TAC.
Doug Von Gausig, mayor of Clarkdale, says he wouldn't hold his breath. He says, however , that it recently became clear the need for an umbrella water advisory group when the Verde Valley former WAC members gathered ad hoc to authorize some USGS water studies, an issue formerly administered by the Water Advisory Committee. Von Gausig said it proved to be "a challenge."
County Supervisors became inpatient with the lack of apparent progress of the committee and its constant bickering between the opposing sides of Mingus Mountain. Last July, the county board withdrew its funding for the WAC staff coordinator John Rassmussen. At the time Cottonwood Natural Resources Director Tom Whitmer warned that "you are in trouble" if members want to actually accomplish something without a coordinator.
Von Gausig says that USGS came to him recently asking what was to become of the annual updates of the groundwater monitoring. He says, "Without the WAC there was no mechanism to see what studies we would pay the USGS for and who was going to pay how much. USGS contacted me and asked 'what are we going to do?'"
He contacted the other former WAC participants and was able to assemble the government representatives with the USGS representatives to give authorization.
USGS suggested a new study that is 'experimental' but said to be able to determine where the water in the river originates. For example, whether the water it is snowmelt from the San Francisco Peaks or perhaps from the Mingus Foothills.
Whitmer, a former Arizona Department of Water Resources planning manager, questioned whether that additional expense is justified based on its experimental nature.
But he urged USGS and DWR to increase their financial participation and the additional study was kept as part of their work program for the Verde tests.
According to Von Gausig, "It is almost unbelievable that we have decided not to have a WAC at a time when it is needed much more than in the past."
Non-profit groups often raise questions about 'what is the future of the Verde River' and 'will increased pumping in the Big Chino lower the baseflow of the Verde.'
Tom Whitmer is not sure that is a needed concern for the Verde Valley. He believes, "There is lots of water in the Valley and it won't run out. I don't think anyone is going to run out of water."
The groundwater drawn by the City of Cottonwood (about 3.5 cfs) and by Clarkdale (O.8 cfs) is only a fraction of the baseflow, says Whitmer.
Still Whitmer says, WAC "played a useful and valid role," especially the TAC. While the politicians which sat on the Water Advisor Committee to make decisions, may not fully understand all of the technical reports by themselves, the TAC expert members can question the reports intelligently and the USGS wants to hear that feedback."
TAC members were volunteers on the committee. Whitmer remains the only staff Verde Valley government staff member who has the expertise for long range planning.
He admits that Cottonwood is in a position today where there is not much land left for future growth, other than 10 square miles of Arizona State land near the Catholic Church. Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Jerome,are the only Verde Valley municipalities that are water providers. Cottonwood is taking steps to hedge future demands.
The city has dramatically patched much of its leaky water infrastructure so it is a fraction of former loss. The city is also building a loop reclaimed water system to recycle treated wastewater effluent for irrigating grass fields and is planning injection wells.
Cottonwood also funds educational efforts in local schools to educate children about water conservation.
The city was recently applauded for its efforts.
"We are looking to "build out" and the sooner we get ahead of the game and start banking water, the better," Whitmer adds.
But Ed Wolfe, a former TAC member says use of the groundwater model commissioned by the WAC shows the Verde River could be threatened should construction explode in the Big Chino basin. The 225 square miles of developable land there could support more than 72,000 possible homes. He says that would demand 18,000 acre feet of groundwater reducing the reduce the base flow in the Verde River in 90 years by 25 percentBy Joanna Dodder Nellans, Contributing Reporter
Yavapai County supervisors voted Monday to help cover the cost of analyzing where groundwater comes into the Middle Verde River.
The project also will continue monitoring sites in the Verde Valley so scientists know what's changing in the groundwater and surface water systems.
While he's glad the project is moving forward, Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig said it's a perfect example of why the county needs its now-defunct Water Advisory Committee.
"I really miss the WAC," he said over the phone last week. "I hope someday we can get it back together. It (water) is clearly the most important issue in Yavapai County."
The U.S. Geological Survey is contributing $22,000 to the project, the Arizona Department of Water Resources is contributing $20,000, and Verde Valley local governments that used to be part of the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee will contribute a combined $23,000 based on each of their human populations.
The USGS is conducting the groundwater inflow study work with new technology that measures helium in surface waters to pinpoint the sources of groundwater, and even figure out the age of the groundwater.
This is the first time these local governments have contracted with the USGS together since the Board of Supervisors withdrew its membership and money from the Water Advisory Committee last year, while also eliminating the county job of Water Advisory Committee Coordinator John Rasmussen.
The county also used to be the fiscal agent that signed agreements with the USGS. The City of Cottonwood is acting as the fiscal agent for this year's USGS monitoring agreement in the Verde Valley.
Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis, who brought up the idea of leaving the Water Committee, has explained that he preferred to spend county money on individual board-approved projects instead of paying dues that also support a coordinator.
The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors agreed Monday to contribute to the USGS work in the Verde. Davis was not in attendance and the board didn't comment on the action.
The board's actions last year apparently led to the demise of the 15-year-old Water Committee, because it hasn't met since the county dropped out and let Rasmussen go. The county was the largest dues contributor because it has the largest population (consisting of residents in unincorporated areas).
The supervisors also voted Monday to return all the remaining Middle Verde Water Committee dues to individual municipalities and the Yavapai-Apache Nation, further signaling an end to the Water Committee.
That's how Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig took it. He's a longtime Water Committee member and former chair.
The lack of a coordinator for meetings to draw up the monitoring agreement, alongside the lack of a fiscal agent, has made the process of working with USGS more complicated, Von Gausig said.
"It's a really good illustration of why we need the WAC," he said.
The county's three largest municipalities have water experts to interpret USGS reports about work like the groundwater inflow study, but the smaller communities and the county don't have such an expert now that Rasmussen and the Water Committee's technical advisory committee are gone, Von Gausig said.
The technical committee also was useful in determining priorities for water studies and monitoring, he added.
Without a group that facilitates meetings between Verde Valley and Prescott-area communities, Von Gausig said he also feels more alienated from the Prescott region.
The loss of the Water Committee has left the huge Bureau of Reclamation study in limbo, too. The agency and local experts spent years analyzing how much water the region might need in the future, concluded there would be a huge shortage, then listed various options to supplement local water supplies.
The Water Committee was supposed to decide whether to ask the Bureau of Rec to study any of those options in detail, but it hasn't met to discuss them.
Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder