The Deep Well Ranch’s plans for the development of 1,800 acres of once open ranch-land into a sprawling urban landscape of around 10,500 dwellings is hard to imagine. It’s even harder to imagine where they plan to get all the water to allow for this mega development, that projects on completion, a 20 percent increase in Prescott’s population.
The City has allocated the development 950 acre-feet (AF) of water from its water portfolio in exchange for Deep Wells allowing the City construct a pipeline across its ranchland to the Little Chino aquifer. This allocation allows for the construction of around 4,000-to-5,000 homes. Another 900 AF (an acre-foot, is 325,851 gallons) — is projected to come from the Big Chino Aquifer near Paulden. That water would provide for an additional 5,500 residents. This is where that projection meets an uncertain reality.
Of the development’s initial 950 AF allocation, 450 AF is given as credit for the used brown water that will be piped out to leaching sites near the airport. The surface acreage of the Little Chino aquifer receives rainfall over 485 square miles. To allow that brown water piped to a location near the airport where it is forced under pressure deep into the gravel and rock will somehow percolate into the expansive body of the aquifer to replace extracted water, is an unproven process sanctioned, surprisingly, by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR). The sooner we disabuse ourselves of this untested notion the better.
There is no guarantee, none, that the Deep Wells Ranch development, the City of Prescott and Prescott Valley will ever receive water from the Big Chino aquifer. It’s a presumptuous, pipe dream to imagine Prescott taxpayers voting for a tax increase to fund the Big Chino pipeline, for the sole benefit of the construction and real-estate industry.
The downstream Salt River Project Consortium in the Phoenix area and other agricultural users along the Verde River have senior water rights to that river — that incidentally derives much of its water from the Big Chino Aquifer — and would undoubtedly fight any illegal taking of “their water.”
In 2014, ADWR decided that water tapped from the Big Chino aquifer could count toward Prescott’s 100-year assured water supply, but that decision was made without understanding the extent to which the Verde River relies on the Big Chino aquifer. It is estimated that Big Chino groundwater supplies over 80 percent of the base flow of the upper Verde River. This may leave all parties who were banking on water from the Big Chino to look elsewhere. But where? There has been talk of a multi-billion dollar pipeline to bring seawater from the Pacific — along with a desalination plant — or a new exciting and proven technology, and less expensive, that would recycle all our domestic brown water safe to drink, or the least expensive option and the least addressed by the City, conservation.
Current Prescott’s taxpayers will come to realize that growth has a price they may not be willing to pay as they begin to consider the more palatable options as our population grows and the aquifers eventually run dry.
Ron Smith, of Prescott, is a veteran. He worked for Outward Bound and Prescott College in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He led National Geographic supported expeditions in the Arctic and Ethiopia. He is CEO of Roy H. Smith Consulting and a consultant to the defense industry.