Water issues in Green Valley more complicated than it seemsby Hugh Holub on May. 26, 2010, under environment water and energy
The general public opinion is there’s a water problem in Green Valley and it is all the fault of the proposed Rosemont mine. That is not true.
The water table will continue to drop in Green Valley even if there were no Rosemont mine. That water level decline is due to the pumping by existing mines, FICO, urban residents and golf courses. It is also caused by the lack of sufficient CAP recharge facilities in the area.
First, let me make it clear: I do not represent Rosemont.
I represented a whole bunch of homeowners east of Green Valley where Rosemont’s proposed groundwater wells are located. I negotiated a well protection agreement on behalf of the homeowners. As a result of that 2 year effort, I learned a lot about what’s going on down that end of the Valley.
Background: I’m a water attorney and have been dealing with water issues in Southern Arizona since 1974. For a primer on the state’s water law, click here.
Folks in Green Valley are concerned about their water. Rosemont has gotten a permit from the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) to pump up to 6,000 acre feet of groundwater per year. That’s enough water for 18,000 new homes.
But there’s more to this story. Right now in the Green Valley are Farmers Investment Company (FICO) pumps around 30,000 acre feet per year, and the Freeport McMoRan copper mine west of Green Valley is also close to the 30,000 acre feet of pumping per year. Between them that is ten times the groundwater pumping of Rosemont. Click here for pumping history in Green Valley that was provided by ADWR.
Rosemont projects using around 100,000 acre feet of groundwater over a 20 year period. By comparison, Freeport or FICO can pump 100,000 acre feet in about 3.5 years. Both FICO and Freeport will be able to pump 1.2 million acre feet at current rates in 20 years.
Neither Freeport nor FICO are under any state obligation whatsoever to replenish the groundwater they pump, because farms and mines are exempt from replenishment. They have what are called “grandfathered” rights to pump groundwater in the case of FICO, and Type 2 mineral extraction permits or mineral extraction permits for the mines. Rosemont got a mineral extraction permit. They cannot exceed their permitted amount without another permit process.
The only new groundwater pumping that is subject to replenishment are new subdivision developments that got an assured water supply since 1993. They are taxed via the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD) which buys CAP water and recharges it. Groundwater being pumped for urban uses prior to 1993 is also exempt from replenishment requirements.
Besides the 6,000 acre feet permitted to Rosemont, ADWR has estimated another 11,000 acre feet per year of new urban demand along the Sahaurita Road corridor…mostly through sale of state owned land in the area for development in the future. That’s 33,000 more homes and another 8,000 acres of desert bladed.
Interestingly, while the Tucson Active Management Area (TAMA) has the goal of achieving “safe yield” by 2025, water experts at ADWR forecast that will not happen because of the exempt groundwater pumping that will continue in the Green Valley area. “Safe yield” means no more groundwater is being pumped than is naturally or artificially being recharged,.
Also interestingly, the definition of achieving “safe yield” is for the entire Active Management Area, but there is no goal to keep local water levels from falling. The Santa Cruz Active Management Area to the south of Tucson has the additional goal ”to prevent local water tables from experiencing long-term declines”.
The Tucson AMA does not have this water table protection goal.
Thus, it is just fine under existing state law for CAP recharge to be concentrated in the Avra Valley, where there is now a rising groundwater table, and groundwater mining to continue in Tanque Verde, Vail and Green Valley, which have falling water tables. The few remaining riparian areas in the valley are at risk because there is no “direct hydrologic influence” recharge requirement for groundwater mining.
There is a CAP recharge facility at the north end of Green Valley called the Pima Mine Road site. However, this recharge facility does not have the capacity to recharge all the water being pumped out to the south. Its current capacity is 20,000 acre feet per year which could be expanded to 30,000 acre feet per year. As previously noted, there is 60,000 acre feet of groundwater mining going on in the area just between Freeport and FICO. Add existing grandfathered golf course and municipal pumping, as well as projected new municipal pumping, and it is obvious there is not enough CAP recharge capacity in the Green Valley area.
In the ideal world, if the state were really serious about sustainable water supplies, all the groundwater being pumped in Green Valley would be subject to replenishment, with no exceptions for any mine, farm and urban development that was completed before the replenishment mandate went into effect. Also, such recharge would be mandated in the “zone of hydrologic influence” to protect water tables.
The reality is that will require a major change in the state’s groundwater management laws, which will not happen until residents of Tucson and Phoenix unite to demand that change.
So where does Rosemont fit into all this?
Rosemont has been buying CAP water and having it recharged in the Tucson AMA before they even get their permits to mine. At last report (today) they have bought over 45,000 acre feet of CAP water for recharge. They didn’t have to buy one drop of CAP water. If Rosemont can do this, why can’t Freeport and FICO?
The bad news is most of this Rosemont CAP water ended up being recharged at a CAP recharge project in Marana. Why? Because there was not enough capacity at the Pima Mine Road CAP recharge facility to get the CAP recharge closer to Green Valley. Between the Tohono O’odham and the City of Tucson, it is hard to get any surplus recharge capacity at Pima Mine Road.
Rosemont, recognizing the problem that their CAP recharge effort is not directly benefiting Green Valley, hooked up with Community Water of Green Valley to develop a second CAP recharge facility farther south, so any CAP recharge would directly offset any groundwater pumping by the mine. Remember, Rosemont is under no obligation to do squat about mitigating their pumping groundwater. But they are doing what is right notwithstanding the lack of any legal mandate. That’s not a common experience with businesses in this country….doing something because it is right.
It gets even more interesting. There is opposition to the Community Water CAP recharge project from Pima County, FICO and others in the area. [note 1] FICO has proposed an alternative CAP recharge project, but with the purchase of the Arizona Nevada development land west of Green Valley by Freeport (a major funding source for the FICO alternative) , the FICO recharge project may be dead.
Finally, another interesting facet of state groundwater law is that no one has any right to the existing depth to groundwater in their well. Up in Pinal County a new industry drilled a well and sucked the water out from under a neighboring pecan farm. The pecan farmer sued for damages and lost. For a more detailed discussion of groundwater law and that case click here.
When area residents who would be directly impacted by Rosemont’s proposed pumping approached Rosemont about the potential loss of their wells, property values and homes, Rosemont legally could have told the residents to go pound sand, literally.
Instead Rosemont agreed to a precedent-setting well protection program that could result in up to 166 private wells in the area being replaced or pumps lower edat the expense of Rosemont. The well protection agreement is limited to this particular company because a covenant condition and restriction has been recorded on the mine’s well sites mandating that anyone who owns the wells cannot pump any water for use at the Rosemont mine site unless the well protection program remains in effect.
Whether or not you think there ought to be another copper mine in the area, the water issue in Green Valley regarding Rosemont is very clear and documentable. The mining company is going way beyond any existing requirements to mitigate its impact on its neighbors.
Rosemont is actually part of the solution to the water problem in Green Valley. That cannot be said for other big water users in the area who are exempt from paying to replenish their pumping right now.
[note 1] One of the objections to the Rosemont CAP recharge effort is the uncertainty of CAP water supplies. What is little understood is that the CAP is just a bunch of pipes and ditches, which currently diverts 1.2 million acre feet of Colorado River water into the state. Arizona has another 1.6 million acre feet of senior Colorado River water rights sitting in Yuma. The CAP diversion point at the Colorado River was actually sized to divert 1.6 miollion acre feet per year. Thus, if there is a shortage for whatever reason, the issue is NOT physical availability of water. It is how much will that water cost if the farms in Yuma need to be bought out so their water rights can be transferred to Phoenix and Tucson. There are also high priority Colorado River water supplies available for lease by the state’s Indian tribes. Groundwater could also be pumped out of western Arizona into the CAP system to augment it, with severance damges paid to western Arizona interests. None of these are cheap alternatives. So it is not a supply issue, but a cost issue.