QC nearing completion of big water deal

This map shows part of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal system at Lake Havasu, which opposed the deal because the Colorado River is its primary water source. (Special to the Tribune)

Queen Creek is dotting i’s and crossing t’s in a $21-million deal to purchase Colorado River water from GSC Farm in Cibola that will yield 2,033 acre-feet of water annually for the town through the Central Arizona Project canal system.

That would satisfy the water needs of at least 4,066 homes a year and possibly as many as about 6,000.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this month cleared the way for Queen Creek’s purchase, which has been under consideration since 2019 and it already has been approved by the Arizona officials.

And Town Council this Wednesday, Sept. 21, will hold a hearing on the deal before taking a final vote on it.

Here’s how the water will get here:

Lake Mead, which straddles the border of Arizona and Nevada, is a reservoir that stores Colorado River water, held back by the iconic Hoover Dam.

When an order comes in from a city or town, dam operators send the water to the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal system at Lake Havasu, Arizona.

“Instead of our water going south to Cibola, it will take a left hand turn at Lake Havasu and it will go into the CAP canal,” said Paul Gardner, director of public utilities for the town. “As it crosses the Salt River in Mesa, it heads south and east to Queen Creek.”

The CAP canal forms part of Queen Creek’s border, so once the water arrives, it will be diverted to a storage facility that the town has been building in anticipation of this water deal going through.

Think of it as a series of giant retention basins.

“The water will percolate down into the ground and that’s how we will store it,” Garner said. “The water district will use it and not pump groundwater.”

Groundwater is a significant factor in the town’s water equation.

Queen Creek says it sits on a 100-year groundwater supply and did not react to federal drought actions in mid-August that called for water restrictions.

Most Arizona municipalities didn’t either, although some have one into the first stage of a water management plan that calls for more education on conservation and urging consumers to reduce water usage by 5%. However, there are no mandatory restrictions on water use in those municipalities.

Once in Queen Creek’s retention basins, the water from Cibola will eventually comingle with the underground supply, effectively increasing the size of the 100-year aquifer.

“What will happen is this 2,000-acre feet of water will be stored and it will go down into the aquifer and it will be stored for either future pumping or for current pumping,” Gardner said.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources estimates than one acre foot of water can serve at least two and possible three households in the state for a year.

No matter how the water is used, Gardner said, the goal will to be to offset any underground aquifer use at all.

“If we pull out 2,000-acre feet, 2,000-acre feet of the Cibola water will go back into the aquifer,” he said.

“The philosophy is to stretch the groundwater out to maybe 200 years or 300, where it almost become sustainable ... to where that aquifer just becomes what we would consider the storage facility and water treatment plant for us.”

Gardner said this philosophy is ancient.

He pointed to the Egyptians, who took water out of the Nile and dug a storage basin lower than the river at which point the water would be purified as it percolated through the sand. Queen Creek wants to do the same thing with the Cibola water.

Not everyone is happy with the water deal.

“The town is not seeking a sustainable water supply,” said state Rep. Regina Cobb, R- La Paz County, in a letter of opposition to sale, which she and others sent to the governor. “The town is seeking aggressive economic development.”

Others think buying river water from other places and routing it to booming and thirsty areas like Queen Creek is short-sighted.

“It’s going to be a huge transfer of wealth if they succeed,” Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter said during the public hearing stage of the sale. “It’s a horrible precedent to set and it opens the floodgates to similar water deals.”

The attorney representing GSC Farm, Grady Gammage Jr disagrees.

“I don’t think this proposal opens any floodgates or creates some massive precedent for other transfers to take place,” said Gammage, Jr., an attorney representing GSC.

“There is plenty of water on the river for both urban growth and continued agricultural use. This is not in any way going to cause some catastrophic result in water on the river,” he said.

Historically, it was common practice for farmers and other residents to take matters into their own hands when it came to water. The closer that your land was to the mouth of the river that you lived near, the luckier you were and the more “water rights” you had.

That’s because prior to statehood and thus any real regulation, water rights were largely decided simply by where you put down roots.

Things really haven’t changed all that much. It’s just that now, water diversion is a highly legalized, complicated, high stakes and pricey endeavor, and the population relying on the water is astronomically larger.

“Arizona has always moved water to where the people are. They’ve never moved people to where the water is,” Gardner said. “Where people want to locate that’s where they’ve always moved water.

“That’s why you have Salt River Project. That’s why you have Lake Mead and Lake Powell. We haven’t moved people to the rivers. We’ve actually moved the rivers to where people want to live.”

Queen Creek will get its water from the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, which will not be affected by the deal.

By selling its water to Queen Creek, GSC Farm, which has said it wants to stop irrigating most of its farmland and will keep enough water rights to develop 400 acres.

“It’s not like this land is going to sit there and have dust blowing in the wind,” Gardner said. “This is going to be something where it’s developed for a better use. It’s like a sportsman’s ranch.”

Once the paperwork is done and the water starts flowing down from lake Havasu, about 4 ½ million gallons, or 13 ½ acre feet, of water will be diverted into the Queen Creek retention basins every day, forever, as long as the Colorado River continues to supply it.

And the town is not done looking for additional water.

“We are going to continue to stay aggressive and we’re going to continue to do our best to take what we call this finite water supply that we have and stretch it out from 100 years to 200 to 300 to 400 hundred to basically sustainable to where it’s forever water,” Gardner said.

Queen Creek expects their water to start arriving early next year.

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