Originally Published: December 21, 2010 10 p.m.
PRESCOTT - After years of making the news for its contentious lawsuits, the Big Chino Water Ranch issue took a turn toward settlement in 2010.
Starting in February, when Prescott and Prescott Valley entered a groundbreaking pact with the Salt River Project (SRP), and continuing through the April approval of new state legislation, the Big Chino issue has been on a course of negotiation rather than litigation.
Officials termed the February settlement a "time-out" in the lawsuits that had been going on for years over the Prescott/Prescott Valley plans to build a 30-mile pipeline to transport water from the Paulden-area Big Chino Water Ranch.
Basically, the pact called for the two sides to sit down together and try to work out their differences rather than pursue a solution in the courtroom.
At issue for years was SRP's contention that the large-scale pumping from the Big Chino aquifer would damage the flow of the Verde River, for which the Phoenix-area utility has senior water rights.
Over the past several years, the debate had generated a number of legal filings, with both sides seeking reams of public records from the other.
City Manager Steve Norwood said the discussions leading up to the settlement agreement brought together the right people at the right time.
"If you would have asked me a year or two ago (whether the two sides could come to a settlement agreement), I would have said 'no way,'" Norwood said. "But it was one of Mayor (Marlin) Kuykendall's number-one issues."
Norwood said city officials pursued the settlement with the thought that "surely reasonable people can come to reasonable solutions."
Even so, officials from both sides stressed that the February settlement was just the beginning of what could be several years of negotiations.
First up was the need for a new state law to clear up issues in the 1991 statute that originally gave Prescott the authority to import water from the Big Chino sub-basin.
Soon after the approval of the settlement, local state Sen. Steve Pierce sponsored legislation, Senate Bill 1445, to make the necessary clarifications. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed bill into law in late April.
Components of the law included a reduction of the Big Chino groundwater available to Prescott from 14,000 acre-feet to 8,068 acre-feet, and clarification that the water could be moved between the Little Chino and the Upper Agua Fria sub-basins.
Meanwhile, water officials from the various sides also began a round of intensive discussions about how to deal with issues such as groundwater monitoring and modeling, as well as mitigation of the impacts from the Big Chino Water Ranch pumping.
Prescott Regional Programs Director Craig McConnell said this past week that talks between him and SRP's David Roberts had been going on for months on those issues.
Noting that the negotiations are "very detailed and complex," McConnell said draft agreements have been going back and forth between the two parties.
"I would hope we would have the first agreement implemented by February," McConnell said.
Roberts, manager of water rights and contracts for SRP, cited a similar timeline.
"We're very close to completing several agreements," Roberts said. "I'd like to take (an agreement on groundwater monitoring) to our folks by January/February."
A subsequent agreement on groundwater modeling should be ready for approval soon afterwards, he said.
While Roberts said the two sides have been making progress, he added, "From SRP's perspective, it's been slower than we anticipated."
He attributes that, in part, to discussions on Prescott and Prescott Valley's end, noting that local officials have been discussing "some timing of where they're heading in the future."
Indeed, McConnell and Norwood both emphasized that plans for the Big Chino Water Ranch are further in the future than the city had once planned.
While the city originally talked about beginning construction on the pipeline in 2009, the ailing economy has caused the city to push off the project until well into the coming decade.
Norwood said the start of the project would depend largely on the economy, but he said the earliest would be about five years away. "Realistically, it will probably be closer to seven years," he added.
That timeframe, in turn, has given the involved parties more time for the negotiations.
"With the economy the way it is, and with the demand for the water from the Big Chino being much less urgent," the two sides have more time to work out the issues, McConnell said.
Even so, he added, "We do want to maintain the momentum, and we do not want (the discussions) to come to a standstill."