Northern Ariz. communities seek Congress' support for $13M supply study
Written byAPRIL REESE, Land Letter
The Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council, a collaborative group made up of local, federal and tribal officials as well as environmental groups and private entities, announced Dec. 14 that it met with Arizona's congressional delegation last month to garner support for the Bureau of Reclamation study, which needs congressional approval. The analysis would weigh the economic and environmental costs of three projects aimed at bringing more water to the region, including a pipeline that would tap Colorado River water in Lake Powell and two well fields that would pump water from two different aquifers.
According to a 2006 water supply study commissioned by the group, current water supplies in the area will not meet projected demand as soon as 2050.
"It's definitely one of the top areas where we know there are going to be some issues," said Tom Whitmer, manager of regional strategic planning for the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which serves on the advisory council. "We know there are going to be some shortage potentials if growth continues at the current rate."
Specifically, the Coconino Plateau, which roughly encompasses the area south of the Grand Canyon to the city of Sedona, is facing an unmet water demand of about 24,700 acre-feet by 2050, Whitmer said.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R), who typically introduces water-related legislation on behalf of the state, is still mulling over the proposal, but council members said they left last week's meeting feeling optimistic.
"The Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council is hopeful that Senator Jon Kyl will introduce legislation authorizing the feasibility study and that he will continue to provide leadership on this important regional issue," said Liz Archuleta, chair of the advisory council, adding that she was "pleased" with the delegation's response to the proposal.
"We all recognize the need for this study to identify preferred water supply alternatives for the Coconino Plateau," added Joelynn Roberson, the advisory council's vice-chair and a representative of the Hopi Tribe.
The Rural Water Supply Act of 2006 authorizes Reclamation to conduct feasibility studies without having to secure approval from Congress first, but the agency is still working on criteria for what entities can seek the studies and does not expect to complete them for another eight months or so, Whitmer said.
Calls to Kyl's office were not returned, but council members said he has questions about the study's cost. The council is hoping the federal government will pay for half the cost of the $13 million study.
Possible pipeline construction causes concern
Aside from the cost, critics are worried that the feasibility study will clear the way for construction of the pipeline, a project that has stirred controversy for almost a decade. A 1998 ADWR report concluded that a pipeline from Lake Powell was essential to meet future water demand in the region.
Nikolai Lash, a senior program director with the Grand Canyon Trust and represents the group on the advisory council, said that with drought gripping the Colorado River Basin, and climate change turning a drier region even drier, putting another "straw" in Lake Powell makes little sense.
"It'll be a pipeline for water that's not available," Lash said. Instead, communities on the Coconino Plateau should step up water conservation efforts and manage growth, he said.
According to figures from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, population in the area will double, from 96,125 in 2000 to 184,650 in 2050. Most of the population lives in Flagstaff, which is expected to grow from 63,000 people to as many as 125,000 people.
Consequently, water demand is expected to roughly double by 2050, reaching 40,000 acre-feet per year.
The groundwater projects could be controversial as well. One well field would be constructed near streams that support the spinedace and other endangered fish, and their presence could limit the scope of that project, Whitmer said.
The San Pedro area is also seeking congressional authorization for a feasibility study, although that effort is directed at reducing impacts on the San Pedro River rather than averting future supply shortages, he added. Communities in the Mogollon Highlands in central Arizona are facing potential shortages and may seek a feasibility study next year, Whitmer said.
Click here to view the North Central Arizona Water Supply Study.