Rainwater catchment stirs latest political debate

By Daniel Roca
Staff Writer

At the end of March, the Arizona State Legislature passed HB 1522, a bill that might allow the development of large-scale rainwater harvesting in the state. If permitted, it could provide residents of Yavapai County an alternative source of water collection and renewal.

The primary purpose for implementing the macro-rainwater catchment is to mitigate the Big Chino Pipeline’s water withdrawal from the sub-basin. The captured rainwater would be transferred back into the aquifer, recharging our existing water supply, and hopefully help sustain the water supply for future development.

The bill, brought forward by Yavapai County Councilwoman Carol Springer, calls for a study to analyze and evaluate issues arising from the collection and recovery of macro-harvested rainwater. Though small-scale, residential rainwater catchment is perfectly legal in Arizona, macro-rainwater harvesting threatens to conflict with well-established water laws.

The heart of the debate concerns the classification of rainwater, the allocation of that uncollected water, and whether capturing this “new” water impedes upon the existing water rights of other municipalities.

Currently, Arizona has two designations for water: ground water and surface water. The former could be understood as water that manages to penetrate underneath the surface of the landscape before depositing into an existing body of water. The latter refers to any water that manages to join a natural waterway, i.e. a stream, creek, or river.

Salt River Project (SRP), a Phoenix-based Arizona water supplier and the major force of opposition to the bill, has owned the rights to all surface water in the Verde since 1869. Their primary concern is that large-scale rainwater collection threatens to take water that otherwise might reach the river — water that rightfully belongs to SRP.

Springer hopes that an agreement can be found, despite SRP’s stronghold on water rights. “The Salt River Project has a very territorial attitude towards all water,” commented Springer. “Literally, in their view, no matter what we do with harvesting water, they consider it their water.”

Advocates for the rainwater study insist that macro-rainwater harvesting intends to capture neither ground water nor surface water, but “new” water that would not find its way beneath the surface or into a natural waterway. Different in method and scale than typical rainwater catchment systems, macro-rainwater harvesting utilizes large features existent in the natural landscape to capture and direct water that would otherwise evaporate.

“Ninety-seven percent of the precipitation that falls on the land surface evaporates or transpires. If we can recover some of that, that’s new water that is not allocated as either ground or surface water. That is the key concept,” explained Gary Beverly, member of The Sierra Club and Prescott’s Citizens of Water Advocacy Group (CWAG).

Regarding SRP’s position, Beverly continued, “They do not want to see those water rights consumed by others a drop at a time. There is nothing wrong with that. What it does show is the growing conflict of water resources all over the Southwest.”

Due to the finite supply of available water in the state, the Arizona Department of Water Resources holds Prescott under an Active Management Area (AMA), which stipulates that the city of Prescott must reach a “safe yield” by the year 2025.

A safe yield is considered to be a long-term balance between the annual recharge of an aquifer and the yearly outflow. Until that time, the city of Prescott has a cap on the amount of ground water it can withdraw and the amount of new development allowed.

Opponents to the bill also see this project as an excuse to increase suburban development around the city of Prescott. To this, Springer responded, “We are going to have to grow, whether we have this water or not. The law still allows for individuals to drill personal wells. What we are attempting to do is to offer an alternative, to have the city approve a subdivision so that these people have access to that municipal water system.”

Beverly countered, “Springer has this idea that [capturing rainwater] makes the pie bigger and her immediate inclination is to devote that to development.” He explained that at current growth rates, as capped by the AMA, the city of Prescott has enough water to develop until 2040. As long as the growth rate does not increase, he said, “There is no immediate water resource problem.”

“But the longer we go without being in a safe yield condition, the lower the water table drops. As the water table drops, there is a price to be paid. Do you know who pays the price? The people of Chino Valley,” he stated, pointing out that wells in the area are already drying up, costing homeowners thousands in re-drilling and diminishing property value.

“The only entity in this region that is doing anything for water conservation is the city of Prescott. They have the start of a good program. It’s not all that it needs to be, but they’ve got a nice start on it,” said Beverly.

Regardless of the cause, individuals on either side of the debate acknowledge the need for developing a sustainable water management system in our area. Springer commented, “Both from a legal and physical perspective, we have no other alternative.  This is literally our only hope for a sustainable water supply in the Prescott AMA.”

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.
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