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Pinal's environmental prospects raise tough choices
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COOLIDGE — A recent study from ProPublica and the Rhodium Group identified Pinal County as the state’s second-most at-risk county due to climate change.

The study combined several factors to evaluate the impact on areas that would take shape over the years 2040 to 2060. Pinal County is projected to see major increases in heat, as well as drought, with resultant losses in agriculture and economic damage.

Despite the projections, various interconnected county plans see major development all along the Interstate 10 corridor between Phoenix and Tucson, as well as a planned north-south highway between the East Valley and Tucson that would go through Coolidge and the planned Inland Port megacomplex.

Pinal Partnership President and CEO Harold Christ said that in particular, drought is a major concern for county planners.

“We’re not seeing rainfall or snow packs that we normally see,” Christ said. “Pinal County has historically been such a strong agricultural economy. I think as Americans we take for granted a lot of things until it becomes an issue.”

Christ described plans for a gradual shift away from agriculture — which he said would be “diminished, not phased out completely” — to less water-intensive economic projects such as manufacturing plants like Nikola and Lucid, which in addition to solar plants are all tied into the renewable energy industries.

“It is a bittersweet pill,” Christ said. “We are seeing the positive things as far as the economy in Pinal County, but that is offset by the agricultural community who is going to be impacted by this.”

The county’s economic development manager, Tim Kanavel, agreed that agricultural losses, which could be worth several billion dollars county-wide, are a long-term issue. He said his goal was to intentionally target less water-intensive businesses to bring into the county, as well as bringing in renewable energy innovations.

“We went after high tech because it doesn’t use as much water,” Kanavel said. “They learn how to work with minimum of waste and resources. They’re trying to get a smaller carbon footprint.”

Beyond climate change and water scarcity, there are limitations on developing, some of which are due to state and federal land protections, but also the desire of many residents to live near open spaces. According to Christ, polling lists proximity to open space as the No. 1 attraction for new residents to the area.

“People don’t want to be told you can’t build on that property here or there,” Christ said, “but we will have to reach some consensus on where some of that needs to happen.”

The Arizona Department of Water Resources regulates water usage, and larger development projects have to be able to guarantee a 100-year water supply before gaining approval. Currently, much of Pinal County gets its water from the Central Arizona Project, which draws water from the Colorado River to the west.

Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller described water usage in the area as an ongoing, long-term concern, but said for now, it isn’t a major impediment to current development.

“We take water conversation seriously,” Miller said. “We have a water resources master plan that was just done by WestLand Resources for us. You can’t have unlimited growth but for the foreseeable future and pre-approved projects, there’s plenty of water.”

According to Miller, the underground aquifer tables have risen since the early 1990s when the CAP project first began delivering to the area.

“We are actually doing a lot on our end,” Miller said. “When people consume on a daily basis, that water is treated and can be used to recharge aquifers and we get recharge credits. Someday we can use that water to irrigate green belts, rather than domestic water supplies.”

Christ said he had seen major changes over the past decade in how communities in the county work together to coordinate on water and other environmental issues.

“We didn’t have that before,” Christ said. “In terms of getting water, localities said: ‘I don’t care where you get yours.’ Not now. People are working together and I think you will find some really strong leadership in every one of these communities.”

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Inland Port project taking shape in southern Coolidge
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COOLIDGE — With active solar farms and the first vertical beams up at the Nikola Motor Company site, Saint Holdings CEO Jackob Andersen said the company is “marching forward with our plans” for the Inland Port project a few miles south of downtown Coolidge. Andersen said the multiyear land development project could be fast-tracked as the company looks to find potential partners.

At the north end of Saint Holdings’ property, two 100-megawatt solar plants — East Line Solar and Saint Solar — are online. The solar plants occupy several thousand acres at the intersection of State Routes 87 and 287 and are servicing companies in the Phoenix metro area.

In addition to the completion of the Nikola plant, Andersen said he expects construction to begin on two of the port’s road expansions this year. The county received just over $15 million for a federal BUILD grant at the end of 2019, and plans to use that for improvements along Hanna and Houser roads, just east of SR 87. Saint Holdings had worked to help obtain the funds.

Andersen said that throughout the pandemic period they’d been having discussions with potential additions to the industrial park.

“Before we were having a bunch of executives from a company for one or two visits,” Andersen said. “Whereas now everyone can jump online and we can remotely look at the land on Google Earth and share brochures.”

Andersen also praised the city of Coolidge and City Manager Rick Miller for their coordination and support for the site development.

“We had a good working relationship from there,” Andersen said. “With his very strategic thinking and methodical way of managing, we worked closely to help the City Council understand what we were trying to achieve. We’ve had nothing but a great relationship and good support.”

Andersen was confident that the company’s legwork and track record, as well as direct planning efforts with the city of Coolidge, assured the Inland Port wouldn’t suffer the same fate as previous regional mega-sites such as PhoenixMart, whose enormous and empty exoskeleton offers a cautionary tale off SR 87. It is to be a site where goods from the West Coast are transferred from train to truck.

“I think our track record speaks for itself,” Andersen said. “I do agree that Pinal County has been marred with PhoenixMart and amusement parks and all these other strange things. Some city councils have jumped on these, I would say prematurely. We have been one of the largest land developers for quite a few years now and if you ask around, our reputation is pretty good.”

Saint Holdings is also responsible for the Central Arizona Commerce Park in Casa Grande, which includes the Lucid Motors manufacturing plant now going into production, and a Tractor Supply Company distribution center.