Cottonwood: Scanning a map of Yavapai County in his office, County Supervisor Chip Davis, a fourth generation Arizona rancher, and self-styled Black Sheep Republican, remarked: I don’t think most folks realize what’s happening. I think there’d be more opposition if there was more awareness.
Nearby was a copy of this newspaper flashing the headline River Runs Dry above a story reporting that a stretch of the San Pedro River flowing from the mountains of Sonora to the Gila River southeast of Phoenix is dry. But Davis was talking about the Verde River – not the San Pedro.
Davis’s worry is that the Verde River, the source of 30 percent of Greater Phoenix’s surface water supply, and upon which 3.5 million citizens depend, could go the way of the San Pedro for the same reasons – uncontrolled groundwater pumping.
Even now, warning signs are popping up. Hydrologists report that wells and a large spring above Cottonwood are dry. Yet that’s the least of it. What really interrupts Davis’s sleep is the City of Prescott’s plan to import water from a well field in Big Chino Basin near the headwaters of the Verde River. Prescott officials deny that pulling 14,000 acre feet annually from the aquifer threatens the Verde. Davis disagrees. It strikes me as hazardous to export that much water when the recharge rate is 12,000 acre feet per year. We don’t what the impact will be, but it will be real. Who would have thought ten years ago that one well field could have the effect of drying up a river fifteen miles away?
Another matter worrying him is that Flagstaff and Williams are in the process of sinking 3,000 foot wells. Will they be drilling into the aquifer that feeds the Verde he wonders?
The other elephant in the living room, says Davis is that future development in the Big Chino area could dwarf the impacts of the forthcoming Prescott project. There are hundreds of thousands of acres out there- private and state-owned yet the county has is zero ability to deal with growth directly over the basin.
Zero ability? Truth be told, Davis lacks the power to protect the Verde in a county which grew by 55.5 percent from 1990 to 2000. Tools, I have no tools. By state law, counties are forbidden to consider water issues when matters of zoning change and land use come before them. We cant deny a project because we think there is no water. We cannot even mention the word.
Despite this anomaly, little help has come from the state legislature. Politics has trumped science. Most politicians have turned a blind eye to the scientific facts, says Davis. As he sees it, of the sixty members of the House no more than sixteen are from rural areas. Of the 30 members of the Senate, eight are from rural areas. Naturally, the majority of the legislation is ruled by Pima and Maricopa County. But there’s a larger problem. Although some rural counties are facing explosive growth and challenging water issues, most other rural counties, Apache, Navajo, Gila, Cochise, Greenlee are not booming. The legislators from those counties would do anything to grow, says Davis, so they fight any legislation that could hinder growth by giving counties authority over water.
Davis does some hope on the horizon: various concepts to purchase development rights from ranchers in the Big Chino area.
Funding might flow from a small sales tax, though that will be a tough sell in Prescott where the other two supervisors are located. It could go before the voters as an initiative, says he hopefully.
Another change the legislature did come up to empower Yavapai County to offer project developers higher housing density if they in turn purchase 500 acres or so in the Big Chino nailed down by a conservation easement. But is has yet to be implemented by the county.
Friends and supporters see Davis as unarmed lawman with thieves and vultures at this back. Nonetheless, Chip Davis remains resolute. As responsible custodians, you’d think wed have a statewide goal of building a healthy and sustainable Arizona instead of one of grab all you can as quick as you can because the ship will soon sink.
A new player in the campaign to save the Verde River is Prescott-based Dan Campbell, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of the Verde Program. In an interview he said that he hopes Davis has no plans to seek higher office because Chip is the only Republican who is able to span the divide between moderate Republicans, Democrats and Conservationists in the state.
And as for the fate of the Verde which contains 26 sensitive species, he adds that If we continue to regard Verde River water solely in human or engineering terms, the situation is virtually hopeless. We shall see a repeat of the San Pedro. It is his hope that Senator McCain’s bill to create a Verde Watershed Organization will pass.
Sums up Bill Kusner a leader of Keep Sedona Beautiful, If we don’t do something soon to seek a better balance between humans and nature on the Verde, there’s no way of putting water back into the river.
Years ago, Margaret Mead proclaimed that society should never doubt that the work of a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.
As Chip Davis sees it, what he needs now are more of those kinds of citizens if the Verde is to be saved. The handwriting is on the wall.