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Securing Flagstaff’s Water Future

Flagstaff City Council narrowly approved a $1.8 million contract earlier this year to begin drilling six wells at a city-owned property – Red Gap Ranch – approximately 40 miles east of Flagstaff. The 8,500-acre property was acquired in 2004 through city bond money approved by voters with hopes of securing Flagstaff’s long-term water supply. Many believe this is good news for Flagstaff businesses and developers looking to the future.

Brad Hill, Flagstaff’s water utilities manager, spoke with Flagstaff Business News about the city’s current water supplies and the Red Gap Ranch project, of which he oversees day-to-day operations.

“Based off back-of-napkin guesstimates, maybe within the next 20 years, we could hit a tipping point,” said Hill. “It is not that we will run out of water completely, but we will run out of water to commit to future growth – meaning we will have reached the bucket-of-water we can sustainably use.”

Hill was quick to point out that Flagstaff has a long history of importing water dating back to 1903, be it from the San Francisco Peak’s Inner Basin, Lower and Upper Lake Mary or Woody Mountain wells. Red Gap Ranch would continue this trend.

“If our history is a guide to the future, we’re going to need to import some additional water supplies since we’re already one of the lowest residential users of water in the state,” said Hill. “For economic vitality, a long-term sustainable water supply is vital to our community. And our goal is that since we’ve been around for approximately 130 years, we want to be around for another 130.”

As for the timing of the well drilling, Hill emphasized the time-consuming nature of securing water in the Southwest. “Water projects that go on in the western U.S. take decades – whether it is legal issues, political issues or tactical issues – if communities are prudent in their management of resources, they want to recognize the issues and then work to stay ahead.”

Future Development and Water Adequacy

Flagstaff’s AZNORTH Realty recognizes the long-term implications of the City Council’s decision to pursue Red Gap Ranch water rights for their realty, development and investment business.

“I think the city acted responsibly in locking down Red Gap Ranch for future development,” said Tom Brewster, president and CEO of AZNORTH.

He says with a population of 70,000 and additional development projects on the books, securing Red Gap Ranch is the responsible thing to do.

Brewster speculated that part of the push for securing Red Gap Ranch was proactively proving that Flagstaff has a 100-year water supply available for future development. The 100-year adequacy requirement is most strictly regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) in Arizona’s five “Active Management Areas” (AMAs) established in the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. These five areas are Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson, and Santa Cruz. In order for any commercial or residential subdivision to be developed in these AMAs, it must be proven to the ADWR that the development in question has acquired the rights and ability to deliver a water supply for 100 years.

For those areas in Arizona outside the five AMAs – notably, Coconino County – the 2007 Senate Bill 1575 provides clear authority for cities, towns and counties to adopt a mandatory adequacy program that would impose similar 100-year water adequacy requirements on subdivision developers. Flagstaff has not yet pursued such a requirement.

ADWR Acting Director Sandra Fabritz-Whitney spoke with Flagstaff Business News about AMAs, Flagstaff’s future water supply and its implications for business.

“The state came in and said these five areas need to be regulated because at the time there was significant groundwater overdraft issues – that’s been done,” said Fabritz-Whitney. “Now, we can go out and identify more AMAs, but we can’t do it without the participation and cooperation of local communities. Flagstaff is in the process of renewing their 100-year water supply, just from the standpoint of demonstrating that they have it.”

Fabritz-Whitney also pointed to the increasing collaboration between the ADWR and state and local agencies, illuminating the increasing importance of water for economic development.

“There is more and more integration of water into business decisions at the state level. The more Flagstaff does to secure its long-term water supply is obviously going to have a positive impact on business. Our role is to make sure that they don’t do it at the expense of other water users in the region – it’s a balance.” FBN

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