communities heighten fears over scarce water
- Since the 1890s, rancher Patricia Haydon's family has eked out a living
next to Black Mountain, in an isolated corridor of desert scrub, sand and
cactus, without gas, electric or phone lines - or a reliable source of
AUBIN TYLER, Valley Life Edito
remote stretch of Pinal County is just a few miles north and worlds away
from Tucson's bustling shopping centers and traffic jams.
that is about to change.
large development interests - Robson Communities and Anam Inc. - have cleared
the last in a series of legal hurdles that will allow them to build close
to 14,000 homes plus manufactured parks and golf courses and retail, education
and medical complexes along a 20-mile stretch of Arizona 79 from Oracle
Junction north toward Florence and 12 miles northwest of Oracle along Arizona
77. Supporters say groundwater and surface water supplies will be more
than adequate to serve the projects.
fortunate, I have a 500-foot well," Haydon said. "But over at Willow Springs,
they've driven three wells over 1,200 feet and haven't gotten a drop."
and a handful of neighboring ranchers always have scrambled to get water,
especially in drought years like this one. Drenching monsoon rains in Oracle
and Tucson in late August never touched the area. "Everyone's lost cattle,"
she said. "My neighbor hauls in several thousand gallons every day in a
milk truck. Others are hauling water from Winkelman, Coolidge or Florence.
just forgot how to rain," she said.
if she kept a garden, Haydon smiled grimly and shook her head. "There's
not enough water - the cows come first."
remembers a time when everyone had shallow wells, before the San Manuel
copper smelter came in along the San Pedro River in the 1950s. "The mine
came in and everyone had to start drilling."
with neighboring ranchers Walter and Frances Meyer, the 84-year-old Haydon
wrote to the county planning department in September 2000 requesting that
it deny a zoning change for Willow Springs Ranch. She wrote:
does not exist enough water to support a development of this size. M.O.
Simpson, former owner of Willow Springs Ranch, drilled a well 800+ feet
deep on Star Flat in the 1970s in the hope of developing. This well is
very weak and barely supplies enough water for a few head of cattle."
and Eric Schwennesen, who have ranched the Double Check off Freeman Road
near Haydon since 1996, also worry that the magnitude of the two developments
will drop the water table and put them out of business.
they go to 1,000 feet, we're out of there," Jean Schwennesen said. "They
can become multimillionaires by breaking us."
Schwennesens collected signatures and passed out petitions last year as
part of an effort by a citizens group in nearby Oracle to bring the matter
to a public vote this November. Although the group gathered almost 12,000
signatures, the petitioners were challenged in a lawsuit by developers
last year. The citizens group - Pinal Citizens for Sustainable Communities
(PCSC) - won in Pinal County Superior Court but lost in the Arizona Court
of Appeals. On Sept. 10, the Arizona Supreme Court denied its Petition
for Review. The state's highest court was the group's last avenue of appeal.
in March 2001, concerned Oracle residents Ann Woodin and Linda Leigh organized
a Water Roundtable at Biosphere 2 to help answer questions about the water
needs of the two developments.
the Willow Springs Ranch development at that meeting, hydrologist Errol
Montgomery of the Tucson-based Errol Montgomery & Associates said the
area aquifer "probably" contains 5 to 10 percent recoverable groundwater,
or 1.5 million acre-feet of water. "A football field is one acre, flooded
to one foot is an acre-foot," he explained.
Water Company, which operates wells at Oracle Junction, pumps 400 acre-feet
annually for the town of Oracle (population 3,500). At buildout, SaddleBrooke
Ranch is expected to consume another 2,700 acre-feet per year. The south
village of Willow Springs Ranch will use another 4,000 acre-feet per year.
Other pumping will use about 2,000 per year, for a total of 9,100 acre-feet
water used must equal water replenished by rain, runoff or snowmelt - or
in some cases, artificial recharge by Colorado River water from the Central
recharge estimates for the area vary from 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet. Stan
Leake of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson favors the lower figure.
"But I think it's fair to say that there haven't been any detailed groundwater
studies for that area," he said.
conceded that "after decades, pumping will have an impact on available
discharge. But, he said, "once you have an economic base with this kind
of development, you can import water from the Colorado. There are all sorts
of things you can do once you can afford it.
mining depletion is not necessarily a bad thing," he continued. "Artificial
recharge with imported water is an attractive alternative."
that same water meeting, Jean Schwennesen inquired about getting a bond
on her well, which would allow her to collect compensation if pumping by
the developments dries it up. Montgomery advised her to consult her attorney.
V-shaped piece of desert wrapping around Black Mountain north of Oracle
Junction falls within the Tucson Active Management Area and its Avra Valley
Sub-basin, one of five active management areas in the state managed by
the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The Tucson AMA covers an area
from the town of Sasabe at the Mexican border to an area north of the Pinal
Stitzer of ADWR's Tucson AMA office told the water roundtable participants
that the AMA doesn't address specific areas of groundwater decline because
its goals are basinwide. Further, in order to encourage development, "there's
no requirement to recharge where you're withdrawing," she said. "We're
pumping twice as much as we're replenishing right now within the AMA."
SaddleBrooke Ranch is furthest along in its efforts to obtain a Certificate
of Assured Water Supply, in which it must present evidence to ADWR that
the development won't draw down groundwater below 1,000 feet over the next
100 years. In making that determination, the state water agency considers
historical data, current and future demands on the aquifer and the hydrogeologic
conditions of the area.
ADWR completes its review of the developer's application, the agency publishes
a legal public notice twice in a two-week period in a local newspaper of
record. If there is no public objection, a final substantive review is
done and a certificate issued within 60 days.
Sept. 12 and 19, ADWR published legal notice of application for certificate
of an assured water supply for SaddleBrooke Ranch in the Arizona Daily
Star. The development's water provider will be Arizona Water Company, which
has wells at Oracle Junction and supplies Oracle and the surrounding area.
public has until Oct. 4 to file an objection, according to Virginia Welford
of ADWR's Tucson Active Management Area office. "If an objection is filed,
everything stops and it goes to the legal division," she said.
Willow Springs Ranch development - near Patricia Haydon's ranch - has yet
to proceed with its application for a certificate, although it did request
a water availability report from ADWR in 1997.
a one-page summary, that report concluded: "Information pertaining to depth-to-water,
well yields and water quality is limited. However, in Section 34 the depth-to-water
was recorded at 160 feet below land surface in 1960. The availability of
groundwater, water quality and well yields on the property can only be
determined by drilling on individual parcels."
Willow Springs Ranch will seek approval for another 15,000 to 20,000 homes
in addition to the 8,500 already approved - creating a city larger than
Casa Grande just south of Florence. Currently, only the south village plan
for Willow Springs Ranch has been approved by the county.
can finally start (pursuing a water certificate), now that we have the
legal grounds," said Willow Springs Ranch developer Alex Argueta, who believes
that there is "more than an ample supply of water" in the region. "It will
be a one- or two-year process."
additional wrinkle in the water debate is the presence adjacent to the
proposed SaddleBrooke Ranch of the Page-Trowbridge Ranch Landfill, where
the University of Arizona disposed of radioactive and chemical wastes from
1962 to 1986. The landfill was closed and sealed with a temporary cap in
1986, although a final cap wasn't installed until 1997. Area residents
worry that the large-scale development will draw down toxic waste from
the landfill to contaminate Oracle's aquifer.
(Page-Trowbridge) landfill is no different than 100 other landfills in
the state," said Robson Communities executive Steve Soriano. "The evidence
is in our favor."
to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, there are four monitoring
wells at the site and water is checked semi-annually for evidence of contamination.
Since 1986, "no groundwater contamination has been found above background
concentrations or drinking water standards."
environmental quality agency issued a post-closure permit to the University
of Arizona on Nov. 6, 2001. ADEQ spokesman Patrick Gibbons said: "From
our perspective, the post-closure permit satisfies state requirements for