Northern Arizona plans for growth

Flagstaff,AZ – Bundled in insulated overalls a construction worker kneels on the roof of a new Flagstaff town home hammering shingles. Jean Richmond-Bowman (BO-man) is the executive vice president of the Northern Arizona Building Association. She says the winter weather doesn't slow Flagstaff developers but new water standards might.

BOWMAN: They're concerned that they're going to make it even more difficult and costly to develop here in already pretty restrictive conditions.

The Department of Water Resources has set up special development restrictions for Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson because of their limited ground water supply. In the rest of the state builders have to meet certain guidelines as well. But in the end more projects are approved in those rural areas with one caveat: home buyers are made aware of how adequate or inadequate their water supply is.

In 2006 the city of Flagstaff issued about 4-hundred building permits for new homes. That's about 50 more than the previous year.

Flagstaff utility manager Ron Doba gets a lot of questions about growth.

DOBA: We see new subdivisions frequently. People are saying what about the water? And I thought we were in a drought I thought we had concerns about water. Why are these subdivisions being approved why are we allowing growth to take place? Where's all the water going to come from?

Where IS the water going to come from? Doba says the surface water from the San Francisco Peaks snow pack and Upper Lake Mary isn't dependable. But he says ground water from the Coconino aquifer is ... for now.

DOBA: There's a tremendous amount of water in it but it's very deep it's very expensive to pump the water out of it and it's hard to locate wells because of the geology we're dealing with.

Hydrogeologist Abe Springer explains.

SPRINGER: It's hard drilling it's deep drilling to get to the water The rocks we have don't yield particularly high amounts of water unless the rocks are highly fractured or faulted where we do have those areas and where we do have a lot of wells we've put some stress on the aquifers at those locations.

A recent study by the Bureau of Reclamation shows by 2050 northern Arizona communities will be using more water than they can draw from the ground. Coconino County Supervisor Liz Archuleta:

ARCHULETA: If we continue with our current use of water we will not be able to meet that demand. If we continue to do what we're doing today so that means without any type of conservation without any other source of water we won't have what we need to meet our needs.

County and city officials are encouraged by the governor's call for more local authority over development, but Flagstaff Utility Manager Ron Doba says it's only one part of the equation.

DOBA: You gotta plan for the worst when you're supplying water to a community. We used about 8,000 acre feet last year and we're anticipating we're going to be doubling that by 2050.

Phoenix was once the size of Flagstaff. And it was at about that time when the city realized they needed another source of water. That's when they fought for a pipeline from the Colorado River, now known as the Central Arizona Project. Flagstaff is surrounded by federal land so there may be some restrictions as to how far it can grow.

Local, state, tribal and federal officials are considering a pipeline that would stretch from the Colorado River, snake through the Hopi and Navajo reservations, travel down to Flagstaff and service much of the rest of northern Arizona.

Department of Water Resources Director Herb Guenther:

GUENTHER: That's a large project obviously with some federal participation on behalf of the tribe. That's probably the most feasible. Very expensive but it's probably going to be necessary for sustained growth.

Guenther says the Statewide Water Advisory Group is sending proposals to the Legislature that seek to create a loan fund for such rural water projects.

Flagstaff utility manager Ron Doba says a northern Arizona pipeline is projected to cost about 150 million dollars.

DOBA: It would cost a lot and it would cost more than the water users in the city of Flagstaff could bear there's no question about that and that's in today's dollars 30 years from now when we would go to build a pipeline it could be 3 times that amount. We would hope that we could get some assistance from somebody. Much in the same way the Central Arizona Project received assistance.

In addition to cost Doba's concerned about obtaining rights to an already over-allocated river.

DOBA: Having the pipe and having the rights to the water that flows through the pipe are two separate things there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed in the future before that could happen one is the allocation of water to have the right to access it. The other is a concern about where the intake would be because we're talking about lower basin users using water out of Lake Powell, which just isn't done. That water is typically for the upper basin users which are the states north of Lake Powell.

But Doba isn't too worried about Flagstaff's water outlook. He even gets calls from as far away as New York - people offering to send us water by train. Doba tells them we're not that desperate. He's confident that there's plenty of water. It's just going to become more expensive to obtain it.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.