Prescott, AZ – Water is a scarce commodity in the desert southwest. All over there are battles over water and who should have it. In Yavapai County it's no different.
State officials have told the tri cities area they must come up with a new water resource to sustain their growing communities. They have permission to tap into the Big Chino aquifer several miles away. Federal studies have shown that aquifer supplies at least 80 percent of the flow for the upper Verde River, the only Arizona river to flow freely year-round. Abe Springer is a geology professor at Northern Arizona University and coordinator of the Northern Arizona Water Institute.
ABE SPRINGER: Those studies have shown that varying a few percentage points a good percentage of the flow of the upper headwaters of the Verde River comes from the Big Chino basin. It's tough to describe in words what it looks like but the best description is the big chino basin looks like a bathtub.
And Springer says where the tub overflows is where we see springs and the Verde River headwaters.
SFX: opening and closing of the gate, hiking
On a recent sunny morning the Nature Conservancy's Dan Campbell hikes to the headwaters. He takes long strides past several old cottonwood trees and other lush vegetation that thrives along the river's edge.
CAMPBELL: It's important to see how little water there really is at the top of this river we estimate 23 cubic feet per second. If you imagine say a basketball is roughly a cubic foot 23 of those passing by in a second it's not much water. It does make this entire habitat very vulnerable to upstream pumping.
Campbell worries that if the water level in the river drops because of groundwater pumping, wildlife like bald eagles and beaver may be without a home. Last year the group American Rivers named the Verde among the top 10 most endangered rivers in the US.
CAMPBELL: Oh there goes a great blue heron which indicates the number of fish in here.
In addition to the wildlife, people downstream are also concerned about their quality of life. In Clarkdale, a small town about 25 miles away, Mayor Doug Von Gausig sits on his back deck that's perched several feet above the Verde.
VON GAUSIG: I would say the river being here is why we're all here one way or another. Cottonwood and Clarkdale were both founded here because of the Verde, Camp Verde certainly was For me it's spiritual sustenance and I think that's what it is for most people in the Verde Valley.
For Brenda Hauser the river provides more than spiritual sustenance. It provides actual sustenance - mostly corn, hay and pumpkins.
SFX: water flowing back into the Verde from the irrigation pond
On the Hauser's farm in Camp Verde they've dug ditches from the river to irrigate the fields. She and her family have relied on the Verde to farm for three decades.
HAUSER: It's a scary thing you dry up farms to use the water to plant houses.
SFX: bring back up and fade out irrigation water
If we travel farther downstream all the way to Phoenix we hit the Salt River Project - or SRP - which provides water and hydropower to the Phoenix metro area. Most of its surface water supply comes from the Salt River. But 30 percent comes from the Verde. SRP's Greg Kornrumph says he worries about the pipelines' impact on their allotment.
KORNRUMPH: This is water that's been flowing in that river forever. To the extent that there are impacts that reduce that flow it's an impact to water rights and water supplies that SRP and its shareholders have relied upon for over a 100 years.
Kornrumph and others are concerned that Prescott and Prescott Valley haven't yet come up with a contingency plan in case the groundwater pumping drops the river level. The Center for Biological Diversity has even threatened to sue.
Prescott and Prescott Valley water managers say there's no reason to mitigate. The two communities commissioned a study from a private firm that found a clay intrusion between the aquifer and the river. The study concluded their pumping 18 miles from the headwaters won't affect the river at all. Still they plan to build monitoring wells along with the pipeline to ensure they're not depleting the river. John Munderloh, the water resource manager for Prescott Valley, believes that should be enough.
MUNDERLOH: I think it's important that we not over commit our public dollars to a plan we may not need.
In 1980 state legislators enacted the Arizona Groundwater Management Code as a result of serious declines of groundwater in central and southern Arizona aquifers. The Prescott area became one of five so-called Active Management Areas along with Phoenix and Tucson areas. But John Munderloh points out that the others had federal help from the Central Arizona Project.
MUNDERLOH: We were left without options when we were straddled with the same water management plan that the Phoenix area, the Tucson area were hit with. It was never their intent or their vision to provide us with a source of water when they created those rules until that was rectified in 1992 when the legislators said ok you can import water from the Big Chino.
In the late 1990s the Arizona Department of Water Resources found Prescott to be taking more water out of the Little Chino aquifer than what they were putting in. So state officials gave them until 2025 to obtain enough water to support their community without depleting the resource. That meant tapping into the Big Chino.
Chino Valley has taken a different approach with its own pipeline project. Mayor Karen Fann says they'll recharge the Verde with treated effluent to replace what they pump out of the Big Chino.
FANN: We have put on another very strict caveat to that water that any developer that purchases this new water for a new subdivision he cannot use it for outside watering Any outside watering has got to be done with other resources. We are talking rain harvesting.
Critics have pointed out that Chino Valley doesn't get much rain and it's going to be challenging to convince people to get on board with the conservation plan.
To complicate matters many people in Yavapai County have their own domestic wells - wells they could pump all day without restrictions if they wish.
Fann says it's important to work with the well-users and the other communities to educate them on their responsibility to the environment.
FANN: If we don't work together as a group and if we all fight each for some reason if the transmission line never gets built the reality is more and more people will move to the Prescott AMA, more and more people will split their lots there will be more wells and quite honestly we will just keep depleting the water resource instead of being good stewards of our area.
Both Fann and Prescott/Prescott Valley leaders say they've tried to work together but neither party is willing to build one pipeline instead of two even though it would save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Both pipelines should be complete in the next couple years unless they're held up by a lawsuit. But all three communities agree the pipelines only provide a short term solution.
FANN: The reality is that that's going to solve our problem for maybe the next 20-25 years. It's a good interim stop gap but Arizona truly needs to wake up and smell the roses on this issue.
In the coming years water experts say there will be a need for more drastic measures like desalination plants and water reclamation systems that turn waste water into drinking water.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.