From the May 4, 2002 edition of . . .  
The Casa Grande Dispatch 
Posted to Sunday, May 5, 2002
Planned communities heighten fears over scarce water 
By AUBIN TYLER, Valley Life Edito
October 02, 2002
ORACLE - Since the 1890s, rancher Patricia Haydon's family has eked out a living next to Black Mountain, in an isolated corridor of desert scrub, sand and cactus, without gas, electric or phone lines - or a reliable source of water.

This remote stretch of Pinal County is just a few miles north and worlds away from Tucson's bustling shopping centers and traffic jams. 

All that is about to change. 

Two large development interests - Robson Communities and Anam Inc. - have cleared the last in a series of legal hurdles that will allow them to build close to 14,000 homes plus manufactured parks and golf courses and retail, education and medical complexes along a 20-mile stretch of Arizona 79 from Oracle Junction north toward Florence and 12 miles northwest of Oracle along Arizona 77. Supporters say groundwater and surface water supplies will be more than adequate to serve the projects. 

"I'm fortunate, I have a 500-foot well," Haydon said. "But over at Willow Springs, they've driven three wells over 1,200 feet and haven't gotten a drop." 

Haydon and a handful of neighboring ranchers always have scrambled to get water, especially in drought years like this one. Drenching monsoon rains in Oracle and Tucson in late August never touched the area. "Everyone's lost cattle," she said. "My neighbor hauls in several thousand gallons every day in a milk truck. Others are hauling water from Winkelman, Coolidge or Florence. 

"It just forgot how to rain," she said. 

Asked if she kept a garden, Haydon smiled grimly and shook her head. "There's not enough water - the cows come first." 

Haydon remembers a time when everyone had shallow wells, before the San Manuel copper smelter came in along the San Pedro River in the 1950s. "The mine came in and everyone had to start drilling." 

Along with neighboring ranchers Walter and Frances Meyer, the 84-year-old Haydon wrote to the county planning department in September 2000 requesting that it deny a zoning change for Willow Springs Ranch. She wrote: 

"There does not exist enough water to support a development of this size. M.O. Simpson, former owner of Willow Springs Ranch, drilled a well 800+ feet deep on Star Flat in the 1970s in the hope of developing. This well is very weak and barely supplies enough water for a few head of cattle." 

Jean and Eric Schwennesen, who have ranched the Double Check off Freeman Road near Haydon since 1996, also worry that the magnitude of the two developments will drop the water table and put them out of business. 

"If they go to 1,000 feet, we're out of there," Jean Schwennesen said. "They can become multimillionaires by breaking us." 

The Schwennesens collected signatures and passed out petitions last year as part of an effort by a citizens group in nearby Oracle to bring the matter to a public vote this November. Although the group gathered almost 12,000 signatures, the petitioners were challenged in a lawsuit by developers last year. The citizens group - Pinal Citizens for Sustainable Communities (PCSC) - won in Pinal County Superior Court but lost in the Arizona Court of Appeals. On Sept. 10, the Arizona Supreme Court denied its Petition for Review. The state's highest court was the group's last avenue of appeal. 

Back in March 2001, concerned Oracle residents Ann Woodin and Linda Leigh organized a Water Roundtable at Biosphere 2 to help answer questions about the water needs of the two developments. 

Representing the Willow Springs Ranch development at that meeting, hydrologist Errol Montgomery of the Tucson-based Errol Montgomery & Associates said the area aquifer "probably" contains 5 to 10 percent recoverable groundwater, or 1.5 million acre-feet of water. "A football field is one acre, flooded to one foot is an acre-foot," he explained. 

Arizona Water Company, which operates wells at Oracle Junction, pumps 400 acre-feet annually for the town of Oracle (population 3,500). At buildout, SaddleBrooke Ranch is expected to consume another 2,700 acre-feet per year. The south village of Willow Springs Ranch will use another 4,000 acre-feet per year. Other pumping will use about 2,000 per year, for a total of 9,100 acre-feet per year. 

Generally, water used must equal water replenished by rain, runoff or snowmelt - or in some cases, artificial recharge by Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project. 

Natural recharge estimates for the area vary from 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet. Stan Leake of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson favors the lower figure. "But I think it's fair to say that there haven't been any detailed groundwater studies for that area," he said. 

Montgomery conceded that "after decades, pumping will have an impact on available discharge. But, he said, "once you have an economic base with this kind of development, you can import water from the Colorado. There are all sorts of things you can do once you can afford it. 

"Groundwater mining depletion is not necessarily a bad thing," he continued. "Artificial recharge with imported water is an attractive alternative." 

At that same water meeting, Jean Schwennesen inquired about getting a bond on her well, which would allow her to collect compensation if pumping by the developments dries it up. Montgomery advised her to consult her attorney. 

The V-shaped piece of desert wrapping around Black Mountain north of Oracle Junction falls within the Tucson Active Management Area and its Avra Valley Sub-basin, one of five active management areas in the state managed by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The Tucson AMA covers an area from the town of Sasabe at the Mexican border to an area north of the Pinal County line. 

Linda Stitzer of ADWR's Tucson AMA office told the water roundtable participants that the AMA doesn't address specific areas of groundwater decline because its goals are basinwide. Further, in order to encourage development, "there's no requirement to recharge where you're withdrawing," she said. "We're pumping twice as much as we're replenishing right now within the AMA." 

Presently, SaddleBrooke Ranch is furthest along in its efforts to obtain a Certificate of Assured Water Supply, in which it must present evidence to ADWR that the development won't draw down groundwater below 1,000 feet over the next 100 years. In making that determination, the state water agency considers historical data, current and future demands on the aquifer and the hydrogeologic conditions of the area. 

Once ADWR completes its review of the developer's application, the agency publishes a legal public notice twice in a two-week period in a local newspaper of record. If there is no public objection, a final substantive review is done and a certificate issued within 60 days. 

On Sept. 12 and 19, ADWR published legal notice of application for certificate of an assured water supply for SaddleBrooke Ranch in the Arizona Daily Star. The development's water provider will be Arizona Water Company, which has wells at Oracle Junction and supplies Oracle and the surrounding area. 

The public has until Oct. 4 to file an objection, according to Virginia Welford of ADWR's Tucson Active Management Area office. "If an objection is filed, everything stops and it goes to the legal division," she said. 

Anam's Willow Springs Ranch development - near Patricia Haydon's ranch - has yet to proceed with its application for a certificate, although it did request a water availability report from ADWR in 1997. 

In a one-page summary, that report concluded: "Information pertaining to depth-to-water, well yields and water quality is limited. However, in Section 34 the depth-to-water was recorded at 160 feet below land surface in 1960. The availability of groundwater, water quality and well yields on the property can only be determined by drilling on individual parcels." 

Eventually, Willow Springs Ranch will seek approval for another 15,000 to 20,000 homes in addition to the 8,500 already approved - creating a city larger than Casa Grande just south of Florence. Currently, only the south village plan for Willow Springs Ranch has been approved by the county. 

"We can finally start (pursuing a water certificate), now that we have the legal grounds," said Willow Springs Ranch developer Alex Argueta, who believes that there is "more than an ample supply of water" in the region. "It will be a one- or two-year process." 

An additional wrinkle in the water debate is the presence adjacent to the proposed SaddleBrooke Ranch of the Page-Trowbridge Ranch Landfill, where the University of Arizona disposed of radioactive and chemical wastes from 1962 to 1986. The landfill was closed and sealed with a temporary cap in 1986, although a final cap wasn't installed until 1997. Area residents worry that the large-scale development will draw down toxic waste from the landfill to contaminate Oracle's aquifer. 

"The (Page-Trowbridge) landfill is no different than 100 other landfills in the state," said Robson Communities executive Steve Soriano. "The evidence is in our favor." 

According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, there are four monitoring wells at the site and water is checked semi-annually for evidence of contamination. Since 1986, "no groundwater contamination has been found above background concentrations or drinking water standards." 

The environmental quality agency issued a post-closure permit to the University of Arizona on Nov. 6, 2001. ADEQ spokesman Patrick Gibbons said: "From our perspective, the post-closure permit satisfies state requirements for water quality." 

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