Photo Courtesy of Prescott Daily Courier, Joanna Dodder Nellans Children Wade in Sedona’s Oak Creek, a Tributary of the Verde River.

Photo Courtesy of Prescott Daily Courier, Joanna Dodder Nellans Children Wade in Sedona’s Oak Creek, a Tributary of the Verde River.

Article from Prescott Daily Courier
By Joanna Dodder Nellans

COTTONWOOD – A “call to action” from U.S. senators John McCain and Jeff Flake seeking a Verde River Watershed plan gained a positive reaction Wednesday from Verde Valley officials.

The Middle Verde subcommittee of the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee agreed to respond with a letter that thanks Arizona’s U.S. senators for their interest and looks forward to cooperative efforts.

Subcommittee members said the timing is perfect, because a major U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study about potential future water sources for Verde Watershed residents is likely to be released within a few months.

“It’s clear that the current water uses in the Verde River Watershed are unsustainable, with communities on a path that will distress the Verde River, dry up groundwater wells, and weaken the economic prosperity of the area,” the senators wrote June 27.

“We urge you to lead your community into taking a new path that balances current uses with future growth in a manner that protects the river for the enjoyment of future generations. We stand ready to help you in that effort.”

The senators sent the letter to the chairs of the Yavapai and Gila county boards of supervisors; the mayors of Prescott, Prescott Valley, Sedona, Camp Verde, Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Jerome; and the chairs of the Yavapai-Prescott, Yavapai-Apache, and Fort McDowell Yavapai nations.

One Middle Verde subcommittee member noted that McCain has a home in the Verde Valley.

The letter notes that the latest U.S. Geological Survey study and water budget for the Verde Valley indicates that the Verde baseflow could decrease as much as 8,600 acre-feet during the coming century while some wells go dry, and some of the decrease is attributable to groundwater withdrawals in the Upper Verde Basin where Prescott-area communities are located.

“We believe the study serves as a call to action,” the letter said. It asks for a “long-term water management strategy for the Verde River.”

It could be a challenge for the Verde Basin communities to work together on such a plan, however, since the only group that brings all the local elected officials together could now be falling apart.

Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee members agreed in March to reduce their monthly meetings to gatherings as needed in 2013, and split into two subcommittees that meet monthly.

Then the Prescott and PV councils said they would quit the Water Advisory Committee if it didn’t agree to their request to cut their dues. The committee agreed and the county followed suit.

It’s unclear whether the Upper Verde communities plan to form a subcommittee, or how they feel about the senators’ letter. Water Committee Co-Chair Steve Blair, a Prescott City Council member, apparently was unavailable for comment Thursday.

And now the Cottonwood City Council has voted against joining the Middle Verde subcommittee after failing to attend any of its meetings so far.

“The creation of two sub-WACs seems to be counter to the original intent, which was to provide a forum for both sides to air their differences and concerns and to work together on developing regional management plans for the sustainable use of water supplies,” Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens wrote to the YC Water Advisory Committee co-chairs July 12. “We believe that separating into two sub-WACs will only lead to greater divisiveness than already exists.”

Cottonwood cut its dues, and the mayor’s letter incorrectly accused the subcommittee of trying to add new members and set regional water policy. It also protested the subcommittee’s decision to move away from consensus decisions to majority voting.

The county Water Committee was formed in 1999 to foster communications between the Middle and Upper Verde regions. At the time, Middle Verde officials were loudly opposing Prescott’s plans to build a pipeline to access groundwater in the neighboring Big Chino Aquifer.

A decade of studies and data collection culminated with the 2011 release of a U.S. Geological Survey state-of-the-art computer model that could help communities understand how their future groundwater use might affect the flow of the river, since its baseflow is dependent upon groundwater.

But then Prescott and Prescott Valley balked at using the computer model, fearing the public might misinterpret how their plans to pump the Big Chino Aquifer might affect the river. Prescott-area residents of the Little Chino Sub-basin are depleting their groundwater supplies. Scientists generally agree that the Big Chino provides at least 80 percent of the Upper Verde’s baseflow.

The new U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study will list potential future sources of water for a growing Verde Basin human population. Subcommittee members agreed Wednesday to reach out to the public to help people understand the study when it’s released.

The next step would be for the Yavapai County Water Advisory Committee to choose a limited number of potential future water sources that the Bureau of Rec can study in more detail.

But Middle Verde Water Advisory Committee members noted Wednesday that such a study for the Coconino Plateau will cost about $13 million, and it’s less complex than a Verde Basin study would be.

They wondered out loud where the millions would come from, especially in light of federal sequester budget cuts. Carrying out any plan would cost much more.

Dan Campbell, recently retired from The Nature Conservancy and now on the Verde River Institute board, said the message of the Bureau of Rec study might be that Verde Basin residents need to live with the water they already have.

“That means talking to our neighbors to the north,” he said.

He suggested the Verde communities use the USGS model to figure out the best sites to withdraw and recharge groundwater supplies on a regional basis. The San Pedro River Basin already is doing this with its model, he said.

“You have to change the way water is delivered in the Verde Valley,” agreed Greg Kornrumph of the Salt River Project, which has major water rights on the Verde River for its Phoenix-area customers.

The Gila River Basin court adjudication process that has been going on since 1974 is hindering efforts to quantify local water rights and pool water supply efforts, Kornrumph said.

Click here to read the full letter from Senators McCain and Flake.

Click here to go to the Daily Courier website.

Contact Senator McCain by clicking here.

Contact Senator Flake by clicking here.

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Oak Creek, Photo by Ted GrussigMiddle Verde River by Doug Von Gausig