FLAGSTAFF (AP) – A week into her appointment last fall as a Mohave County supervisor in western Arizona, Lois Wakimoto heard the words that would consume her since: We have a water problem.
The entity that sends Colorado River water throughout Arizona wants to buy farmland in her district that includes Mohave Valley, pay farmers to fallow it and redirect the water to the state's most populous areas where housing developments are booming.
The program would be the first in the state to move water from agricultural users along the river to central and southern Arizona, and local residents are opposing it.
"As they want to take what they say is excess because we're not using it and store it for their future growth, we look at that and say, 'what about our future growth?'" Wakimoto said.
The Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District doesn't need Mohave County's approval to proceed but plans could be delayed if the county government sues as planned.
The replenishment district, part of the Central Arizona Project, delivers 30,000 acre-feet of water annually to aquifers in Pinal, Pima and Maricopa counties, but expects that figure to at least triple as new housing is built. An acre-foot is enough to supply a typical family for a year.
The district is state mandated to look for new water sources. Its portfolio includes water leases from an Arizona tribe and a private utility, storage credits, river water, and, potentially, the small town of Quartzsite.
Without more water, "there would be a fairly significant impact to the economy of the state of Arizona," said district manager Dennis Rule.
The 2,200 acres of farmland in western Arizona's Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District could add 5,500 acre-feet. The $34 million deal is far from final, needing approval from the Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District board, the state water agency and the Interior Department.
But talk of it has raised tension among residents and the board that oversees the seven farms and the 14,000 acre-feet of water tied to them that includes coveted senior water rights.
Public attendance at the district's monthly meetings generally is scant but now dozens show up, even when the sale isn't on the agenda. Minutes into the February meeting, one man asked what was on everyone's mind: "Why does Phoenix want our water?"
Wakimoto, who comes from a farming family, took a front-row seat. She's urged residents to write letters, held town halls and questioned the board's motives.
"We are a community that has really all of a sudden realized that our entire future and the legacy we leave our children is at stake," she said.
Long-term fallowing programs around the Colorado River basin have benefited big cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.
The Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District paid farmers in Yuma $750 an acre to forego planting on parts of 1,500 acres over three years, saving 21,500 acre-feet of water used to prop up Lake Mead. The district proposed extending the $3.2 million program but Yuma Mesa Irrigation District manager Pat Morgan said farmers declined.
In Mohave Valley, the replenishment district has proposed fallowing up to half of the 2,200 acres. Farmers there mostly grow cotton, wheat and alfalfa.
The deal won't work unless the Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District allows water to leave its boundaries.
Under a draft resolution, the water couldn't leave forever. Board Chairman Chip Sherill said the district also wants assurances it doesn't lose out if a shortage is declared on the Colorado River.
Farmers use most of the district's Colorado River supply, with some reserved for growth, Sherill said. "We have a sufficient amount of water with Mohave Valley to take care of our water needs for many, many years to come."
The Mohave County Board of Supervisors has set aside $20,000 to draft a lawsuit against the irrigation district if a water transfer passes and bought 15 acres of farmland there to establish legal standing.
If the replenishment district's proposal succeeds, water savings would be diverted upstream and sent through canals to aquifers around Phoenix and Tucson.
"This board will be transferring wealth from Mohave County to central Arizona," said county lobbyist Patrick Cunningham. "We think that is flat-out bad policy. It's wrong. This water should stay where it's reserved."
Perri Benemelis, the replenishment district's water supply manager, said the prospect of a lawsuit is disappointing. She believes everyone can benefit under the right terms.
"We're trying to implement our program in a responsible way," she said. "If we go after water supplies, and they have an adverse effect in the community, we're not going to be able to do the next transaction."
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