Recharging the aquifer

Surrounded by fellow town officials, teachers and seventh graders studying the water cycle, Mayor Tara Walter cuts the ribbon to celebrate the town’s new water recharge area Oct. 15 behind the town’s south wastewater treatment plant.

FLORENCE — While the county and state fret over dwindling water, the town of Florence has worked creatively in recent years to amass an abundant assured supply, Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the Florence Planning and Zoning Commission.

“Florence is a leader in groundwater management and sustainability among small towns in Arizona,” Billingsley told the commission on Nov. 7.

The town has an assured water supply designation from the state of 15,069 acre-feet per year and is able to provide letters of supply to developers without having to secure outside sources.

The town is also one of the lowest water users per capita in the state, which came out in the town’s water and sewer rate study approximately 18 months ago.

“We pump less than 2,000 acre-feet per year — probably what a farmer uses in a month,” Billingsley told the commission.

The town supplies its customers with water from four high-producing wells. Billingsley continued that the town is on the edge of an aquifer that receives inflow from the Gila River.

Although the Gila’s surface is dry, there’s a river below ground, Billingsley said. “So our water supply is replenished, while Casa Grande, Eloy and Maricopa sit on a lake.”

Florence invested in its own direct water recharge facility, which came online last month. Three basins behind the town’s south wastewater treatment plant will recharge 18,000 acre-feet of treated wastewater per year back into the aquifer. Billingsley said Florence is the first Pinal County community to have this.

The state doesn’t allow the town to recharge all the water it treats, which is ironic, Billingsley said. “They’re worried we’re going to raise the elevation of the aquifer.” The town receives long-term storage credits for this recharge, plus the Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River it sends to recharge facilities.

CAP effects

The town receives an annual allotment of 2,048 acre-feet of water from the Central Arizona Project.

When Billingsley first came to town Florence had an agreement with two different irrigation districts to use this water.

“Through their managed recharge processes, we got a portion of that water back in credits,” he said.

The bad news was, “that cost the taxpayers of Florence about $250,000 a year. We were $250,000 in the red through that agreement,” Billingsley said.

Town staff looked for a better way and arrived at a complicated arrangement that others are starting to copy statewide. The town made an agreement with the Tonopah Irrigation and Drainage District in the Phoenix Active Management Area, where water is more valuable.

The Tonopah District recharges Florence’s CAP water and the town receives recharge credits in the Phoenix AMA. The town then resells those credits to the state.

The town makes about $450,000 per year doing this, instead of losing $250,000, Billingsley said. The Town Council uses those funds to buy more credits in Pinal County.

As a result, “we buy a substantial amount of agricultural extinguishment credits in Florence on an annualized basis.”

These credits are available when farmland is retired, and Florence has “a sizable supply” of them, Billingsley said.

The town also receives an annual incidental recharge credit for irrigation water that returns to the water table.

“It’s not a lot, but we get that,” he said.

Johnson Utilities

A huge portion of Florence doesn’t receive Florence water.

When Anthem at Merrill Ranch began more than 10 years ago, the town couldn’t readily afford to extend the water system so far from downtown; Johnson Utilities stepped in to serve the Anthem community west of Felix Road.

When Anthem develops east of Felix Road, that area will be served by the town of Florence.

The Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District is essentially an insurance policy, Billingsley said. If the town must pump more groundwater than it’s permitted to, it can lean on that policy to make sure there’s an assured water supply.

The town pays $250,000 per year to belong to CAGRD, although the town has never had to use it.

“But it’s nice to have it, if we have something exponential happen that requires an excess use of groundwater,” Billingsley said.

Johnson Utilities customers see a CAGRD charge on their bills.

“That is Johnson Utilities using that insurance policy to pump additional groundwater, essentially a penalty assessed against all of you as customers,” Billingsley said.

The town doesn’t charge a CAGRD fee, but it does add a surcharge of $1.50 on water bills for future water supplies.

The town plans to ask future developments “to bring their own water, so we don’t end up in the situation that you have in Anthem, where you’re paying CAGRD on a monthly basis,” Billingsley said. “The beautiful thing for the developer is, instead of having to go to one of the Indian nations, or to (Salt River Project) to acquire that water, we have an agreement in place at a much lower rate through the town.”

The town recently received a Growing Water Smart Grant from the Sonoran Institute and is working with the Babbitt Center, a water think tank at the University of Arizona, on a water sustainability plan.

The town hopes “to be on the cutting edge of the interface between land use planning and water policy. And Florence hopes to be used as a model across the Southwest,” Billingsley told the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The town also works with the Pinal Water Augmentation Authority, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Water Now Alliance, which is a nationwide effort for water sustainability and conservation, Billingsley said.

Future challenges

Despite its enviable position, Florence isn’t without its challenges.

The state wants to treat Florence like other cities. But Florence is different, and the state should give credit where it’s due, Billingsley said.

“We’re the only large municipal water provider in Pinal County; everybody else is served by a large for-profit company,” he said.

Eloy and Queen Creek have small municipal systems but nothing like Florence’s.

“So we’re kind of on our own,” Billingsley said. “There’s going to be a lot of negotiating over the next two years, and when we negotiate, we really don’t have any friends at the table. We’re in a unique position, and we’re trying to set ourselves up in that way.”

The state approved $9 million last year to drill more wells for agriculture in Pinal County. The comment Florence continually makes is that ADWR’s job is to reduce the use of groundwater. Billingsley said it’s nothing against farmers, but all other users are being asked to be more efficient.

“This is one of those things that’s just nonsensical from a (town) staff perspective, and it’s something we’re trying to work through.”

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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