Maybe it’s a crisis, maybe it’s just an opportunity. But however it’s characterized, issues around water management have taken the forefront in planning future growth for the county and its cities.

As major projects come into the county such as Lucid and Nikola auto plants, and housing construction has come roaring back to life in Pinal County, it seems as if regional growth is taking a leap forward just as announced water shortages call into question what is sustainable.

While industry leaders and regional planners are nowhere near panicking, they are taking the water issue seriously, either out of need to comply with state regulations or because of an awareness that sustainable water usage is an important component in navigating the future.

“Companies want to be sustainable,” said Coolidge Economic Development Director Gilbert Lopez. “That is what they sell, and that’s a good thing. But the city itself has no water shortage. We have adequate supplies and all of our growing subdivisions have assured water moving forward.”

According to Tony Smith, current president of Pinal Partnership and a former county supervisor, that group of officials has been very “pro growth” but they have to act within the rules and boundaries set by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“We’ve lost some projects, or put them on hold, because of not being able to obtain a water supply assurance level,” Smith said. “It does affect your growth.”

That was the fate of the Dreamport Village project, a proposed resort and amusement park that would be located off I-10 and has since been shelved in part because of an inability to get an assured water supply certificate.

Is there a hard limit on how much Pinal County can grow? A pair of studies out of Arizona State University conducted by Grady Gammage Jr. attempted to quantify this. In his 2011 paper “Watering the Sun Corridor” and its 2021 follow-up, “Return to Watering the Sun Corridor,” Gammage analyzed exactly how much water determined population numbers within the Sun Corridor, the strip of Arizona running roughly from Prescott to Nogales.

Gammage concluded that the region could handle around a million more people beyond the current population of 5.9 million, or around a decade more of “sustainable growth,” even when projecting a large impact from climate change and only small changes in “gallons per capita per day,” a measurement of water use per each resident.

Advances in efficiency or an influx of water from other areas — desalination or Mississippi floodwaters — could add to the region’s “carrying capacity” but with the significant caveat that it would require a dramatic shift from agriculture to urban development, a major concern for ag-heavy Pinal County.

That central Arizona is a desert is not exactly a revelation. The impact of climate change, and the potential for long-term drought to cut off the spigot of the Central Arizona Project water supply, has been known for a long time.

But what has happened recently is the narrowing of the timeline, with shortages along the Colorado River and the subsequent switch to a Tier 1 status under the Drought Contingency Plan. It has happened now instead of in a decade. Beyond finding a way to mitigate the immediate concerns of drought-stricken farmers, the new situation requires new planning.

One of the major projects oriented around regional water is an Eloy and Maricopa-Stanfield Basin Study being conducted jointly by a number of major collaborators, including the cities of Casa Grande and Eloy, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Pinal Partnership.

According to Jake Lenderking, senior vice president for water resources and legislative affairs with Global Water Resources, the group is roughly halfway through their multimillion-dollar analysis. Some of the work already done includes groundwater modeling and assessing the impact of climate change on the region. The study’s scope is a 40-plus-year simulation period, from 2018 to 2060, and represents a range of possible scenarios and future conditions.

The study did have a number of concerning conclusions, including stating that “there is insufficient groundwater in Pinal Active Management Area to support all existing uses and issued water supply determinations.”

While that includes some projects that haven’t necessarily been approved, desired growth projects out to an 8.1 million deficit in acre-feet of water, and aquifer depletions of hundreds of feet below their current levels. The latter can lead to a number of problems beyond the cost of maintaining or drilling new wells; land subsidence could be as great as 18-20 feet south of Eloy, an area that has already had issues with fissures breaking out over the landscape.

Under even their most modest “lowest risk” water-usage scenario, the EMS study said the water table within the Pinal AMA could be expected to drop by 2.5 feet per year.

“These results are concerning and they have large impacts for the region,” said Austin Carey, a water resources analyst for the Central Arizona Project. “That’s why I’m eager to hear perspectives on potential strategies on these unfavorable future conditions.”

In mid-May, the group held a two-day “brainstorm session” with stakeholders about adaptation and mitigation measures related to water in the state’s Pinal Active Management Area.

In addition to surveying current or more feasible solutions such as groundwater recharge, more efficient irrigation and optimizing stormwater collection, the group discussed more far-flung possibilities such as importing floodwater from the Mississippi River, or the potential for a large-scale conversion of crops, such as moving from alfalfa to guayule.

“We put together experts in water management, private industry, Native American communities and policy makers to find better ways to get the most out of our water resources,” Smith said. “We are really focusing on solutions, and recognizing what we have as precious.”

Jackob Andersen, president and CEO of Saint Holdings LLC, said that he felt Pinal County, and Arizona overall, have managed their water very well compared to neighboring states. As local developers, Saint Holdings is a key stakeholder in a number of projects including both the Lucid and under-construction Nikola manufacturing plants.

“People know we are borrowing this water from our children, and we want to do the best we can to ensure there is water for our future,” Andersen said. “But I think we have a good collaboration with people who are working to get it right, and keep business booming.”

In addition to more accurate modeling techniques, Andersen said that advances such as effluent re-use and other water recycling methods also help contribute to lessening the concern over industry’s impact on local water resources.

“I think that if water is used wisely, you can accommodate industries coming into the region,” Andersen said. “If you look at proactive developers like us, we are doing sensible planning. If you can show people what your water plan is overall for a site, you will be looked at more favorably.”

One industry everyone agrees will be hit hard no matter what is agriculture. Long on the front lines for water cuts, farmers in Pinal County are facing a tough situation in the coming years.

Agriculture accounts for almost 80% of water usage in Pinal County and the industry contributes $1.1 billion to the county’s economy. If agricultural land is converted into municipal or even industrial parcels, the demand on the water table goes down significantly, but that ignores the questions of whether farmers get a fair deal in the trade, or what is lost by the displacement of that industry.

“Farming is really going to be where the impact is,” said Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller. “But I don’t want people to believe we have a crisis on our hands. That doesn’t mean we are all sitting here with so much water we don’t know what to do with it. There are very intelligent people in the water field working to find renewable supplies.”

For both farmers and cities, efficient use of water supplies, including re-use and storage, is something that is already happening on a significant scale.

“I think farmers will find some more efficient ways to farm,” Lopez said. “There will still be quite a lot of agriculture activity, we are centrally located in the state and we have been the heart of the farming area for many years. You may see some crops that don’t use as much water, such as jojoba.”

Lopez himself helped run a farm for Bechtel Farms until his mid-twenties and said that while working in Chandler in the 1980s, he saw a similar transition from farming to urban development.

Near Coolidge, several farmers have leased out their land for solar projects. Miller mentioned that Coolidge is currently engaged in an application to ADWR for water storage permitting and a groundwater savings facility that would accrue long-term storage credits. Miller said they are hoping to receive news on that within the next year.

Global Water Resources is also constructing a water recycling plant outside of Maricopa, which would recharge water back into the aquifer.

As for finding “new” water supplies, water transfers are already being negotiated between users directly on waterways, such as the proposed transfer between GSC Farm in western Arizona to the town of Queen Creek. Desalination plants, which could convert ocean water into useable supplies, do not currently service Arizona, but California has made use of that technology.

“We have to think about the big ideas, even if they might sound crazy today,” Lenderking said. “We want to plan our own future instead of it just kind of happening.”

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.