CASA GRANDE — The future of Pinal County will include less water but more people, according to speakers at the most recent Pinal Partnership breakfast.
A panel on water issues Friday outlined challenges ahead for developers and businesses in light of recent announcements about limited access to diminished water resources within Arizona and the Southwest overall.
The panelists touted the partnership’s Water Resource Committee for their work on a variety of legislative solutions and modeling studies.
Pinal Partnership Chairwoman and panel moderator Jordan Rose said the organization would be pivoting from a focus on transportation to water in their work overall.
“We’re really lucky that we have been thinking about water,” said panelist Jake Lenderking, senior vice president for water resources at Global Water. “Water is scarce in Arizona. It always has been, and we are just realizing the effects of that.”
Lenderking said that despite the drought, the county could potentially double in size, adding 400,000 people, under existing entitlements.
Still, the shortages on the Colorado River have led to tightened restrictions on both surface water use and groundwater. Farmers in Pinal County are expected to bear the initial brunt of Central Arizona Project water shortfalls, and that has cascading effects for the local economy.
To ameliorate these affects, the panel discussed solutions that address water availability directly, such as recharge and recycling, and how to overcome regulatory roadblocks in order to help farmers and developers move forward.
“Our goal is to help our communities build the dreams they want to create,” said Terri Sue Rossi, water resources manager with Arizona Water Company. Rossi expressed frustration with the 100-year requirement to secure assured water certificates, believing that the timeframe ignores current needs.
Pinal County Supervisor Steve Miller warned that there is “no one silver bullet” for addressing water scarcity but suggested “capitalism and competition” would help find solutions at affordable costs, whether through desalination or some other mechanism.
Lenderking also noted that GWR is taking a “holistic” approach to long-term planning, which include conservation measures and recycling. According to Lenderking, GWR has put forth several proposals to the state to help acquire water supplies and “alleviate the strain” for the Pinal Active Management Area.
The panel agreed that the county’s farmers would be hit hardest, no longer able to rely on water from the Central Arizona Project to supplement their supplies. That could lead to more groundwater pumping or leaving acres fallow.
One concern among the panelists is that while farmers could sell or lease their land to projects like solar farms, new agreements with developers are stymied by existing regulations even though municipal development uses less water than farming.
Miller said that many landowners had purchased and leased land to farmers that they planned for future development, but that the land was stuck in limbo after the new stipulations on groundwater usage.
Within Casa Grande, Mayor Craig McFarland said that the city had not stopped anyone from rezoning due to water concerns, but if developers don’t already have a certificate of assured water, they are “out of luck.”
Casa Grande has implemented a conservation plan to reduce domestic water use by 15%, and Rossi said that AWC is working with Coolidge and Superior on new programs in those cities.
In addition to, Lenderking, McFarland, Miller and Rossi, the panel also included CAP Planning Analyst Austin Carey.
The Water Resource Committee, chaired by McFarland and Arizona Water Company President Fred Schneider, is working on trying to bring back full recognition of grandfathered rights to award farmers annual water-saving credits if farmland is converted to new housing or other urban construction.
The federal government announced a Tier 1 shortage on the Colorado River on Aug. 16, while the Arizona Department of Water Resources released a statement in July that no new permits would be issued in Pinal County for developments that depend on groundwater.
The Tier 1 shortage cuts Arizona’s allotment of Colorado River water by a third, or 512,000 acre-feet. The status goes into effect next year.