Commentary: Settling water rights key to Verde Valley’s future

Steve Ayers

Steve Ayers

When people and companies that drive economic development are considering investing in Arizona, they want “water certainty” – that is, proof of long-term water supplies that are both physically and legally available.

This is the not-so-surprising finding of a recent survey conducted by the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy and detailed in a new report, The Price of Uncertainty.

The Kyl Center interviewed real estate developers and corporate location consultants to find out what questions about water they ask when they are considering a site in Arizona.

Also not surprising: More than three-fourths of the developers and consultants surveyed agreed that investors have become more concerned about water in the last few years. (All but one of the handful of survey respondents who disagreed said that water has always been a top concern.)

The developers and consultants in the Kyl Center’s survey explained that in some instances prospective land investments “eliminate themselves” from consideration before they are ever seriously considered, because they lack the water certainty developers and corporations need. These professionals don’t have time and resources to devote to sorting out complicated water rights issues.

And economic development is not the only thing affected. A lack of water certainty can also undermine sustainable stewardship of rivers and other water resources because there is no mechanism for implementing a management plan or in-stream flow rights.

Does the Verde Valley have the water certainty we need for sustainable growth? The short answer is no.

The rights to divert surface water from the Verde River and to draw water from wells in the river’s “subflow zone” – the surrounding area that is hydrologically connected to the river – are at issue in the Gila Watershed Adjudication, a decades-long legal proceeding to determine the priority and quantity of water rights in the Gila River and its tributaries, including the Verde.

The final court decree will establish water certainty for the Verde Valley, but some water users and water providers may wind up with significantly less water than they had counted on. In the meantime, as our communities grow, there’s more and more competition for – and reliance on – the very water supplies in dispute.

It has become obvious to many that we can no longer wait for the wheels of justice to grind slowly and finely through the Verde Valley, while our water uncertainty increases. There is an alternative.

General stream adjudications like the Gila Watershed Adjudication have occurred throughout the American West. Almost every adjudication that has been completed has gotten there through negotiated settlement.

Let’s work on finding a way to settle the water rights claims in the Verde Valley to ensure sustainable water stewardship for our communities’ prosperity and quality of life.

Steve Ayers is the economic development director for the Town of Camp Verde.

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