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Water Wars: Arizona counties, towns battle over Colorado River water rights

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Posted at 3:11 PM, Sep 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-27 19:24:06-04

As Arizona’s population continues to swell by record numbers, cities and towns housing the transplants are looking for ways to increase their water supply.

That search has pitted the growing Town of Queen Creek against counties along the Colorado River.

Cibola, Arizona in La Paz County sits near the border with California directly on the river. The population ranges from 250 to 350 people depending on the time of year according to La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin.

She said the river gives life to the town’s two main industries of recreation and farming. Much of the farmland in the area comes with water rights, or a certain amount of water directly from the river.

Several acres of land are owned by GSC Farm, whose parent company, Phoenix-based Greenstone, buys and sells water assets across the West.

Since 2018 the company has been working on a deal to sell its water rights to 2083-acre feet to the town of Queen Creek which is 200 miles away.

That amount of water could serve up to 5,000 households.

Irwin believes the water should stay in La Paz County with the land for potential future development, and not be used to supplement communities in Central Arizona.

“Their argument is, ‘oh, there's plenty of water,’ you know? Well, we have a right to develop too,” Irwin said.

Queen Creek used to be a farming community too, but since 2010 it has nearly tripled in population to about 70,000 people and growing according to utilities director Paul Gardner.

“This year 2,000 new families will be moving into Queen Creek like they did last year. And next year will be another 2,000 new families,” Gardner told ABC15.

It’s his job to make sure they all have water.

Right now, almost of town’s water is pumped out of the ground but is not being replaced naturally at a rate that can be sustained long term.

“We're in search of renewable supplies, to supplement any current groundwater pumping that we're doing so that we can stretch that groundwater from 100 years to 200 years to 300 years, hopefully forever,” Gardner said.

But forever is exactly what Irwin is worried about. “The thing of it is, is once water is gone, it's gone,” she said.

River counties including La Paz, Yuma, and Mohave officially oppose the transfer, citing fears that moving the water would prevent potential development of the land and set a precedent for companies to buy land specifically to sell the water rights.

See the counties letters here:

(La Paz letter)

(Mohave letter)

(Yuma)

”Once you set that standard, you know, there's nothing from another one coming in. another one and another one. Okay, well, let's say that we have 20 that go ahead and do that? Now what?” Irwin asked.

Through its attorney GSC Farm declined to comment for this story but in documents filed jointly by the company and Queen Creek said the proposal “fits squarely within Arizona water law and policy.” Documents said GSC planned to develop 80 homes on the land and that larger developments were not realistic given the remote location.

"Currently, the only access is through California-on a one-lane bridge,” the document said. And that building a large number of homes would "require a school system, public health services, sewer, police... none of which is available, or feasible.”

The water transfer process requires public comment, review from the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), and final approval from the US Bureau of Reclamation.

After public comment concluded in September 2020, ADWR recommended the transfer. But only for about half the amount being requested citing "the need to retain water to serve future housing development on the property without negatively impacting other Colorado River users."

Then in January 2021, a change of heart. The agency increased its recommendation from 1078 af/yr to 2033 af/yr -- all but 50 feet of what had originally been requested.

The agency said it received additional documentation from GSC about plans for development; rather than the original 80 homes planned for the farmland, the company reduced the number to 40, freeing up additional water to be transferred, according to a supplemental filing.

Even with the increase Queen Creek said the amount is less than two-tenths of a percent of the water available on the river.

“To us, we think it's a very minor transfer. To the river communities, they feel like it's world war three,” Gardner said.

But he believes the benefits to Queen Creek and ultimately the state is worth fight.

"Over 100 years, that water supply that we save ends up not just being 2,000-acre-feet a year but ends up being 200,000-acre-feet of groundwater, we don't pump that stays in the aquifer for future generations.”

The Bureau of Reclamation will get the final say after more public comment and an environment assessment.

“It’s my job to try to fight as hard as I can to make sure that that water remains here in our county so we can continue to develop long after I'm gone,” Irwin said.