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Communities Eye Water in Rural Areas

Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

By Bret Jaspers for KJZZ via San Tan Valley Sentinel 

Central Arizona has been booming — more people, more houses, more need for water. There’s also a long-term drought, and less water to buy from the Central Arizona Project canal system. It’s leading Phoenix exurbs to cast about, looking for new buckets. 

Other regions of the state say: Don’t come here. 

“They want to come and take from the rural counties, which is completely wrong, in my opinion,” said Holly Irwin, a county supervisor in La Paz County. Her district is where the Colorado River runs along lush irrigated farmland and small towns. 

Irwin is pushing back against a plan to transfer water rights from some privately-owned farms there to the Town of Queen Creek, likely never to return. 

To her, it’s a slippery slope. 

The buyer here, the Town of Queen Creek, says this purchase will help it grow sustainably. 

“What we’re trying to do is get that groundwater pumping down to as close to zero as possible,” said Paul Gardner, Queen Creek’s utilities director. “We’re not going to quite get there, but we want to get as self-sufficient as possible on renewable supplies.” 

Like other cities and towns on the outskirts of the Phoenix metro, Queen Creek’s population has increased significantly, over 60 percent since 2010. 

The town is paying $10K an acre-foot for water rights tied to the farmland. The quantity is 2,083.1 acre-feet of Colorado River water, making the total price about $20.8M 

The price is not exorbitant, experts say, considering that the sum pays for a right to water in perpetuity. 

Phoenix-based water investment company Greenstone owns the farmland, through its subsidiary GSC Farm 

Greenstone is one of a handful of private investing firms looking at water scarcity in the West as a money making opportunity.  

The firm has hired well-known Phoenix real estate attorney Grady Gammage. After a hearing on the deal in November, he rejected the notion that transferring these specific water rights will hurt development in rural Arizona. 

Gammage said this particular situation is unique, and won’t create the slippery slope rural boosters are so worried about. 

This land, however, is likely not the only property Greenstone ownsAccording to county records, LLCs with the same Phoenix address as Greenstone own over 1,000 acres (4 square kilometers) in Yuma County, just south of La Paz County. 

Water transfers like this, with some important differences, have been tried before. The main reason is that water for new development in Central Arizona is increasingly pricey and scarce, especially in communities on the outer edges of Phoenix. And yet, people are moving there in high numbers. 

New development in Central Arizona must show a hundred years of supply, and have a plan to replenish any groundwater it pumps. One way to do that is enroll houses in an agency called the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment DistrictThat agency, tasked with replenishing pumped groundwater, has consistently raised its prices. It’s also on the hunt for more water. 

For a town such as Queen Creek, securing its own renewable supply would keep it less reliant on the CAGRD. 

Read more at San Tan Valley Sentinel. 

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