Big Chino bills move through committees

Legislation to change the law that allows Prescott to use groundwater from the Big Chino Aquifer now is moving through the House and Senate after a lull.

The legislation stems from an agreement between Prescott, Prescott Valley and the Salt River Project (SRP) to try to cooperate on Big Chino issues instead of fighting in courts.

Controversy over the Prescott-area plans to use Big Chino water stems from the fact that scientists generally agree that the Big Chino supplies at least 80 percent of the base flow for the Upper Verde River. SRP has senior water rights on the Verde for its Phoenix-area customers.

Prescott legislators are sponsoring identical tandem bills that change a 1991 law in Arizona Revised Statute 45-555(E). That law gives Prescott an exception to the 1980 Groundwater Code that generally prohibits transfer of groundwater from one basin to another.

The Prescott region is heavily dependent on groundwater and the state has prohibited it from using its own groundwater for new development, since the region is depleting its own aquifer.

Rep. Lucy Mason is sponsoring House Bill 2561, while Senate Majority Whip Steve Pierce is sponsoring Senate Bill 1445. Committees approved both bills this week.

Prescott, Prescott Valley, SRP, the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, City of Phoenix, Arizona Department of Water Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and Big Chino Valley ranch owner Chino Grande LLC all have registered support for the bill.

The only opposition has come from the Sierra Club.

Components of the legislation include:

• The Prescott Active Management Area (PrAMA) maximum annual allocation of Big Chino groundwater drops from 14,000 acre-feet to 8,068 af, which is the amount that the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) concluded Prescott has a right to pump.

• Allows the PrAMA to pump more water if it is for an Indian tribe in the PrAMA. Currently only the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe has a reservation in the PrAMA and Prescott is its water provider.

• States that any PrAMA municipality can use the Big Chino groundwater under this statute if it meets two criteria. Prescott is the only municipality that meets the criteria and others would be hard-pressed to do so.

• Says Big Chino water imported to the PrAMA is exempt from state well spacing criteria. That criteria requires the state to conclude the well won't damage surrounding land or water users before issuing a well digging permit.

• States that the Big Chino water already is "legally available" to the PrAMA under the state's Assured Water Supply rules.

• States that Big Chino water can be transported between the Little Chino and Upper Agua Fria sub-basins in the PrAMA.

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