Historic deal could secure water for home builders in Arizona

A deal to secure water for developers in Arizona’s booming central and southern corridors has been preliminarily approved by the Gila River Indian Community and the Central Arizona Project governing board.

Both bodies unanimously approved the $97.5-million, 25-year agreement that would allow home builders to buy water from the tribe to replenish groundwater in the state’s growing megaregion.

It also relieves pressure from a statewide steering committee that is charged with finalizing Arizona’s part of a multi-state drought contingency plan (DCP) that details how water supplies are cut when a shortage occurs. There is more than a 50 percent chance of a water shortage in Lake Mead in 2020.

This agreement ensures builders will have an adequate water supply even if water shortages occur.

“We believe our action today helps build momentum to have Arizona approve DCP and protect Lake Mead, but at the same time ensure that water supplies are available for an important sector of Arizona’s economy,” Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said after the tribal council vote Wednesday. “We appreciate Governor Ducey’s strong support for an Arizona DCP that works and take this action today in order to further support his efforts and bring more certainty to the ultimate conclusion.”

Gov. Doug Ducey, state lawmakers and the federal government have been urging the steering committee to get the DCP finalized before January to take to the legislature to receive approval for the State to sign onto the plan.

“Governor Ducey’s plan, including the funding he has provided, was a significant boost for the community’s confidence in a final DCP being adopted and was the catalyst for today’s council approvals,” Lewis said after the vote.

The agreement provides up to 33,185 acre-feet of water to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD) each year for 25 years. CAGRD provides groundwater replenishment services to dozens of towns, cities, and landowners in Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. Member fees enable it to buy water to replenish groundwater to last one hundred years as required by state law.

Representatives from a wide range of water stakeholders applauded the action.

Robert Anderson, a Fennemore Craig attorney who represents the Central Arizona and Southern Arizona Home Builders Associations said the two groups support the deal.

Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership that represents real estate developers, said the agreement would protect real estate and economic development for the future.

Patrick Adams of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Organization, said the group finds the agreement to be a “forward thinking and well-timed issue.”

“We believe this is a great example of a creative approach, one that will provide stability and certainty to CAGRD supplies and aid in its fulfillment of its replenishment obligations,” he said.

Others voiced relief that Arizona is moving forward to get the DCP done to avoid a federal takeover and the threat of court intervention.

“I think these arrangements will help pave the way for getting Arizona on board to complete this multi-state agreement,” said Kevin Moran, senior director of the Colorado River Program for the non-profit national Environmental Defense Fund. “We think these agreements make sense because it’s a voluntary transaction between central Arizona parties and an economic arrangement that makes sense to both.”

CAGRD will pay the total purchase price for the water acquisition from its member fees and dues. It is predicted that user water rates could rise 10-15 percent during the first two to three years of the agreement.

The agreement provides for storage and transfer of 900,000 square acre feet of water over 25 years including:

  • Purchase of long-term storage credits from Gila River Water Storage, LLC.
  • A recovery and exchange agreement with the Gila River Community
  • A contribution of $2.5 million for development and infrastructure to facilities on the reservation for transfer and long-term storage

Victoria Harker

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