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Fight Over Water Rights Pits Mohave Valley Against Central AZ

Although he works on Arizona’s water supply, Dennis Rule grew up in Tennessee, where flooding is a big concern. In an interview, he recalled a conversation he had with a hometown friend. He told him Arizonans had fights over effluent, or sewage.

“And he was just flabbergasted,” Rule said. “Like, ‘you fight over sewage?’ And I said 'yes, it’s an important water supply.’"

Almost every drop in Arizona is an important water supply. And water, they say, is for fighting over. A recent land deal in Northwest Arizona is yet another example of that.

Here’s some background: Rule works at the Central Arizona Project. The CAP brings Colorado River water to the metro Phoenix area. It also replenishes groundwater in the Valley through the program Rule manages, the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD).

CAGRD is trying to buy 2,203 acres of farmland in between Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City because it wants the Colorado River water rights that come with the land. CAGRD would fallow some of the land, and use that saved irrigation water to replenish groundwater in one of five regions in the middle of Arizona.

The purchase is getting major pushback from residents.

“The whole reason the Phoenix area and the Tuscon area wants the water is so that they can grow,” said Karen Summitt, a real estate agent in Mohave Valley. “So why steal it from us and hinder our growth just so they can grow?"

Summitt has lived in the area since the 1970s and says the area is starting to grow again. But any potential new homes in Mohave Valley couldn’t use that water allocation if it’s committed to Phoenix, for example.

John Pynakker, executive director of the Bullhead Area Chamber of Commerce, said when bigger employers shop around for a location, they look for employee housing.

“As these businesses continue to grow and get staffed and we add new businesses, those people aren’t going to have houses,” he said. “And depending on the business, they won’t be able to get a water allocation either.”

So the Mohave Valley wants the water for the same reason metro Phoenix and other population centers want it: for development.

Rule understands that concern, saying there is a “legitimate issue of connecting land use planning and water supply.”

However, as a water manager, Rule can’t wait for a broader discussion of land and water use before looking for additional water supplies like the one that comes with the Mohave Valley farmland. The CAGRD needs agreements like these.

Here’s why. If Phoenix developers plan to use groundwater for new homes in Arizona, they have to enroll in CAGRD. The program was designed to enable more development while, at the same time, maintaining the level of the aquifer. As the program grows, CAGRD has to find more and more water for replenishment. State law mandates it.

In this case, CAGRD would get a new water supply by making a private land purchase. It would pay $34 million to the hedge fund company Water Asset Management, the current owner of the land. The 2,203 acres come with 13,929 acre-feet of water rights from the Colorado River. CAGRD estimates it would use about 5,500 acre-feet to replenish aquifers in central Arizona.

There’s a local board that has a role here, the Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District. MVIDD can allow water to leave the area, or not. The board has five members, all large landowners or representatives of large landowners. One member works for Water Asset Management. He’s recused himself. The Board declined requests for an interview.

John Pynakker doesn’t see why his area’s water should be shipped off to satisfy demand elsewhere. “If I lived in Wisconsin and, you know, me and my neighbors wanted a mountain by us, we couldn’t go and hire somebody to move a mountain to us,” he said. “Move to where the water is.”

The water fight continues next month, when the MVIDD board meets again. If it allows the water transfer, the state of Arizona would review the deal, then make a recommendation to federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Bret Jaspers was previously the managing editor for news at WSKG in upstate New York. Before that, he was a producer at WYPR in Baltimore and at Wisconsin Public Radio.His stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Here & Now, and also the BBC and Marketplace. Way back when, he started as an intern and fill-in producer at WNYC’s On the Media, and then helped out on The Brian Lehrer Show and Soundcheck.When he's not covering the news, he's probably running, reading, or eating. Jaspers is also a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors.