QC inks another big water deal to meet town needs

The area bordered in orange represents the aquifer in La Paz and far west Maricopa counties that will help feed Queen Creek’s water needs. (Town of Queen Creek)

Queen Creek has taken the next step toward its stated goal of achieving water independence by agreeing to buy 500,000 acre-feet of water from a group of landowners and farmers in Maricopa and La Paz counties for $30-million.

The sellers are part of the Harquahala Valley Water Association in areas west of Phoenix.

“We have signed a contract to purchase 5,000 acre-feet of Harquahala water that would be over the next 100 years,” said Paul Gardner, town utilities director. “So that would be a total volume of 500,000 acre-feet.”

In an average year, an acre foot of water supplies the needs of about 3.5 homes a year.

Queen Creek sits on a 100-year supply of underground water and this purchase of water rights from Harquahala, much like a recent $21-million purchase from the GSC Farm in Cibola, helps protect that aquifer, according to Gardner.

“It’s one of the next steps,” Gardner said.

For Queen Creek, water independence would mean securing enough water from various sources that the town is are simply using the underground aquifer as a water storage system rather than for every day use.

Getting the water from Harquahala to Queen Creek is pretty simple, and will travel the Central Arizona Project canal system to make the journey.

The farmland where the aquifers sit is on the south side of Interstate 10 about 60 miles west of Phoenix and the CAP canal in on the north.

“The canal actually passes just adjacent to Harquahala,” Gardner said. “If you can imagine you have this canal to the north of the valley. There is a series of wells that already exist.

“And all they’re going to do is the wells will pump into a large pipe and it will go north about 7 miles to the canal. Then, it will take a hard tight and come down to Queen Creek.”

There it will be stored in a series of large retention basins and eventually percolate into the ground and mingle with Queen Creek’s 100-year aquifer.

Despite the race for water independence in Arizona and the measures communities are taking to achieve it, there are restrictions in place to maintain law and order.

But there haven’t always been.

Arizona has a long history of people battling over water, but now it’s lobbyists in suits doing the negotiations in courts and legislatures instead of weathered ranchers and farmers taking matters into their own hands on the riverbanks.

As cities sprawled and unbridled growth continued, communities did what they had to do to prove that they had a 100-year water supply prior to development, which the state mandated in 1980.

“The politics of cities going into rural Arizona and buying farmland and pointing to that and saying to the government and to the people ‘that’s our 100-year water supply, it’s over there, so we can build today’ – that became an untenable political situation back in the late 80’s all the way up until it was resolved,” said Stan Barnes, a former state lawmaker-turned lobbyist who represents the Harquahala Valley Water Association.

It was resolved, sort of, in 1991 when Barnes authored legislation that prohibited the transfer of rural groundwater to urban locations. It made exceptions for three large aquifers, Harquahala being the most prominent.

“These three basins are the only ones that you can pump groundwater out of and transport to another location,” Gardner said. “Those basins were set aside in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s as places to store CAP water when it was plentiful. Then at a later date that water could then be recovered and used downstream from those basins.”

Those downstream locations include the Phoenix metro area and Pinal and Pima counties.

“So, the day has finally come when the demand for water by the growing geographies of Arizona, like Queen Creek is there, and the economics are such that it makes sense for a growing town that needs water security to meet some of their security needs with groundwater that is currently being used to grow alfalfa or probably cotton in the Harquahala Valley and use it where it’s got a higher and better use. And that’s in metropolitan Phoenix,” Barnes said.

The other loophole in the 1991 law states that the water from Harquahala must be used only for “local purposes.”

But it does not define exactly what that means. Whether the law was intended to provide for the needs of urban sprawl is unclear, but it was likely aimed at keeping California at bay.

“I think the local use idea was to head off someone moving that water out of state or doing something with that water that wasn’t related to Arizona,” said Barnes.

“It was contemplated that the growth areas of Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties would someday need water that existed in Harquahala Valley. It was purposeful that the water that was being used in Harquahala would be used for supporting the urbanization in the growth areas of Arizona.”

Critics have for decades opposed the idea of buying rural groundwater and transporting it to thriving metro areas.

“I’m really disappointed,” said state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-La Paz County, following Queen Creek’s recent purchase of water rights from GSC Farm in Cibola. “I feel like the state has abandoned the river communities.”

Cobb and others have vocally opposed urban-rural groundwater transfers, saying they set a bad precedent and that they are transferring wealth to more populous areas. They have made their case to the state legislature and the governor.

“We should be looking more at conservation and living within our means and not basically allowing massive groundwater pumping in some area to feed more development in another area,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter told the Legislature last year, urging lawmakers to address critical water issues in Arizona.

City officials and other supporters of transferring rural water to growing urban areas point to Arizona history as evidence that the idea is nothing new.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Right now, about 72% of Arizona’s water is used for agricultural purposes, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

As people continue to move to Arizona and places such as Queen Creek continue to experience rapid double-digit population growth, their water usage will switch from water intensive agricultural use to housing, which will demand less water.

Queen Creek has the option to buy another half million acre-feet of water from the Harquahala Valley in the future, depending on how much the Arizona Department of Water Resources says is actually in the aquifer. Estimates range as high as 7–8 million acre feet that they could broker over the next 100-years.

“That has to be determined first. Of that, if you would think of it, we are buying a sleeve of water of a half million acre-feet,” Gardner said. “We could own one million acre-feet of water out of Harquahala. It will depend on what the department comes back and says can be removed.”

There is infrastructure work to be done and government contracts to be signed following the Department of Water Resources determination of how much water is actually in the aquifer.

But the contract between Queen Creek and the Harquahala Valley Water Association is inked and, following the other paperwork, the first drops of water from this deal are likely to reach Queen Creek sometime in early 2024.

Gardner has said that the town remains aggressive in diversifying its portfolio and will continue to look for other sources of water, dutifully protecting its 100-year underground supply.

Between the Harquahala and GSC Farm water purchases, Queen Creek has committed more than $51-million to doing just that in the last two weeks alone.