According to Sarah Porter, Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, the future of the Verde Valley’s communities is inextricably tied to the Verde River, as well as tributaries like Oak Creek.
Porter delivered her keynote address, “The Price of Uncertainty,” to nearly 200 participants in the Verde River: State of the Watershed Conference, Thursday, May 11, at Clarkdale’s Clark Memorial Clubhouse.
Organized by the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition, the conference ran from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Porter focused much of her address on issues related to the Gila River System and Source Adjudication, a court determination of water rights.
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, a general stream adjudication is “a judicial proceeding in which the nature, extent and relative priority of water rights is determined.”
There are over 38,000 parties in the Gila Adjudication. Porter explained that the vast majority of claimants are small — individuals, families, small businesses — but that the combined effect of the legal process leaves much up in the air concerning the Verde watershed and other watersheds.
“Uncertainty is a big impediment to progress,” Porter said, adding that the number of wells in the Verde Valley has risen from a mere 250 in 1950 to “6,500 or so” in 2011, mostly adjacent to the river.
“As long as that kind of well development can happen along the river, the Verde is endangered,” Porter said, adding that rational management of the river will only come when claims to water are made clear. “We have to resolve the adjudication to get there.”
Like all communities, those of the Verde Valley have economic aspirations — which, according to Porter, are in danger of stalling if the Verde River is in jeopardy due to mismanagement.
Porter added that developers are wary of investing in places where water resources are not guaranteed. According to her, 100 percent of the developers she spoke with are in favor of working in Active Management Areas.
According to ADWR, “Areas with heavy reliance on mined groundwater were identified and designated as Active Management Areas.”
The five Active Management Areas are the Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz. They are subject to regulation pursuant to the Groundwater Code.
“If you don’t have water, you don’t have economic development,” Porter said. “[Developers] don’t want the uncertainty of a weak water portfolio .... They said, ‘Once we go through [the Active Management Area] hoops, we have water certainty.’”
Porter added that prior to exploring the issue of how the Gila Adjudication impacts water resource management, she had not looked at watershed health in terms of economic development.
Defying her own assumptions about how growth equates to increased water usage, Porter presented data showing that despite massive growth in the state from 1957 to 2013 water usage has declined since its highest point and flatlined to 1980s levels — all due to improved water management. According to Porter, guaranteeing growth opportunities for the Verde Valley is dependent on changing policy and making sure the adjudication is resolved.
“[The adjudication] is really going to start getting in the way of some communities’ aspirations,” Porter said. “It’s not a question of growth. It’s rational water management .... We can do this through policy change.”