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Museum of Northern Arizona raises $3M to conserve 90-acre Colton Meadows
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When the Flagstaff community wants an undeveloped area preserved as open space, they find ways of coming together to get it done.

That was once again proven last week when the Museum of Northern Arizona announced that enough money had been raised to conserve close to 90 acres of museum-owned property just north of Flagstaff and east of Fort Valley Road, often referred to as Colton Meadows.

The effort has been close to three years in the making and was designed as an alternative to developing the property fully that was purchased by the museum in 1977 as an investment. The Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) raised just over $3 million, which officials said allowed them to largely conserve the area.  

Chair of the MNA Board of Trustees Troy Gillenwater told the Arizona Daily Sun that in his view, the achievement has proven to be a win-win for both MNA and community values.

“What it really proved to me is just how great this community is, that everybody banded together and saw what we were trying to do. And the great thing is it's such a win, win, win,” Gillenwater said.

The area, which includes both undeveloped meadow and forested area on five 18-acre parcels of land, is often used by elk, deer and recreationists.

There is an informal bike trail frequently used by cyclists on the 90 acres east of Fort Valley and between North Quintana Drive and West Mount Elden Lookout Road.

“There's no loser in this. I mean that wildlife habitat and the social trails, they're preserved for perpetuity -- which is fantastic. And at the same time, we’ve helped grow our endowment,” Gillenwater said.

Still, there will be some development even with the easement with three homes to be built. Each home will be located within a 1.33-acre building envelope, with the balance of property preserved.  

In 2017 MNA's board began discussing how the 90 acres the museum owned north of Flagstaff could be used to help support the institution.

Development of the area was one possibility, and it had received at least one offer from a developer to construct a new subdivision in the area. But in the end, the board voted to go down a different path, said MNA Executive Director Mary Kershaw.

But even so, Kershaw said something had to be done with the property in order to support the museum.

”This is something that the board and I have discussed at length and are of one mind about. This land was purchased as an investment,” Kershaw said.

It was thus decided that if MNA could find enough donors to provide a similar level of funding that selling the property would generate, MNA would then conserve the area.

In 2019, donors contributed $1.2 million to preserve two of the 18-acre parcels. And in the years since, other donors have come forward to preserve the remaining three.

One of those community members was Craig Steele.

Steele lives with his wife Heidi Wayment on property just to the east of the area and decided to donate $600,000 to the effort. From their property on the top of the escarpment, Steele said, he and his wife often see elk and deer grazing in the area.

“I see a lot of little ones, too. It’s nice to be able to have a chunk of land for the deer and the elk and the other native animals and plants to get the space they need without too much human interference,” Steele said.

Not everyone contributed such significant amounts but still wanted to pitch in. Several residents of The Senior Living Community located near the area made and then auctioned off quilts to help raise money to preserve the property.

Now that the about $3 million has been raised to preserve the land, the five parcels will be placed under a permanent conservation easement and held by Coconino County.

“So that money will be invested for the long-term benefit of MNA and I think that’s something that, for such a sizable sum, is really important,” Kershaw said.

The money will go into MNA’s endowment, where it will continue to generate funds to sustain the museum.

The conservation easement will prevent all building or development on the property, preserving the acreage as open space for wildlife, recreation and noninvasive research. The only permitted uses are noninvasive research and trails, including specifically allowing for future trail improvements and easements for the Flagstaff Urban Trail System.

The county has long sought to create better connectivity between popular trails to the north of Flagstaff and the city’s urban trail system.

Traditionally, several social trails, often across private property, have connected the city and to trails north of Flagstaff, but the conservation of this property may go a long way in formalizing those connections.

Still, sections of the connector trail still pass over private property to the north and south of the now-conserved land.

Updated for correction at 11:01 a.m. on Sept. 23. 

Drought haves, have-nots test water sharing
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MADRAS, Ore. — Phil Fine stands in a parched field and watches a harvester gnaw through his carrot seed crop, spitting clouds of dust in its wake. Cracked dirt lines empty irrigation canals, and dust devils and tumbleweeds punctuate a landscape in shades of brown.

Across an invisible line separating Fine’s irrigation district from the next, it’s another world. Automated sprinklers hiss as they douse crops, cattle munch on green grass and water bubbles through verdant farmland.

In this swath of central Oregon, where six irrigation districts rely on the Deschutes River, the consequences of the strict hierarchy dictated by the American West’s arcane water law — “first in time, first in right" — are written on the land. As drought ravages the West, the districts with century-old water claims are first in line for the scarce resource while others nearby with more recent claims have already run out.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz. ... It’s shocking the difference,” said Matt Lisignoli, a farmer who got nearly five times more water on his land in one irrigation district than on fields in another.

“I’ve learned more about water in the last two months than I have in the last 20 years, because it’s always been here,” he said. “You don’t know until you get in a bind.”

The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots two hours southeast of Portland has brought new urgency to efforts to share water. Proposals to create “water banks" or “water markets" would allow farmers with excess supply to lease it to those in need. The idea is part of a discussion about letting the free market play a bigger role in water conservation as human-caused climate change fuels drought and farmers run out of options.

Yet the concept is fraught with risks and resistance. Larger-scale efforts to spread water more equitably have been uneven. Along the Deschutes River, where every drop is accounted for, many farmers worry that if they lease their water rights, even temporarily, they may not get them back.

“Whether it’s feasible or not is a very local question,” said Brett Bovee of WestWater Research, a consulting firm for water market research.

Many Western water markets compensate farmers for diverting water to wildlife and cities instead of fields. Far fewer avenues get water to farmers, and the biggest challenge is moving it between irrigation districts, said Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.

The districts oversee water deliveries to customers and often operate as fiefdoms, each with water claims and history. Outdated infrastructure and bureaucracy — often compounded by rigid state laws — make water transfers difficult even between cooperating districts.

In central Oregon, for example, Lisignoli wanted to take irrigation from his farmland in a district with senior water rights and transfer it to parched crops he grows in a neighboring district with lesser rights.

Lisignoli's application had to be approved by both districts and Oregon's water agency, which required an 11-day public notice period, he said.

Desperate, he purchased emergency water from a vineyard for $2,700, but water in that district ran out last month. He hasn’t watered 16 acres of pumpkins in weeks and hopes they will survive for Halloween sales.

“It was a futile effort,” he said. “But I’m hoping that it shows the flaws in the system.”

California, meanwhile, has one of the most flexible water markets in the West, allowing irrigation districts to move water where it's most needed. After a major drought in the 1970s, lawmakers made transfers easier and emphasized that leasing water wouldn't jeopardize rights, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Once a farmer has a transfer approved, renewing it is expedited and in many cases, water can follow demand without a lengthy environmental review, she said.

In central Oregon, water-sharing is a charged topic.

The 960 farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District, which has the area's lowest-ranking water rights, grow 60% of the world’s carrot seed, bound for carrot farmers or seed packets.

Districts with senior rights, meanwhile, tend toward hobby farms with llamas and alpacas, cattle pastures and hay fields. Those farmers have had to cut back for the first time but are still receiving 55% of their water.

The water disparity is compounded by efforts to preserve the federally protected Oregon spotted frog. A habitat conservation plan requires the North Unit district to release water for the frog from its storage reservoir over three decades.

That reservoir, which is filled by the Deschutes River, is almost empty, with once-submerged tree stumps jutting from cracked mudflats.

Other irrigation districts also gave up water for the frog, but “North Unit definitely got the short end of the stick," general manager Josh Bailey said. “It made our situation being the junior water rights holder ... even worse.”

The nonprofit Deschutes River Conservancy and the Central Oregon Irrigation District, which has senior water rights, are studying a water bank. It would provide financial incentives for farmers with extra water to lease it to needy irrigation districts or return it to the river to bolster its flows.

The coalition could launch a pilot project next year. A recent study says about 164,000 acre-feet of water may be freed up by using price incentives, said Kate Fitzpatrick, conservancy executive director. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover a football field a foot deep.

Everyone wants to avoid a crisis like in the Klamath River basin, a region on the Oregon-California border locked in a decadeslong fight over water where household wells are running dry.

“We're trying to figure out ways for water to move around more flexibly," Fitzpatrick said. “If we can find those win-win solutions, I believe that the Deschutes can be a model for the West as the West faces increasing drought and scarcity and population growth.”

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Airman on trial in death of Mennonite woman found near Flagstaff
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FLAGSTAFF — Jury selection began Tuesday in a case against a U.S. Air Force airman accused of kidnapping a Mennonite woman, fatally shooting her and leaving her body in a forest clearing in northern Arizona.

Prosecutors have largely circumstantial evidence against Mark Gooch, 22, who was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in metropolitan Phoenix. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Sasha Krause, 27, and other charges.

Krause disappeared from a Mennonite community in Farmington, New Mexico, where she worked in the publishing ministry and occasionally taught Sunday school. Her body was found in late February 2020 outside Flagstaff with her wrists bound with duct tape.

Sheriff's officials who searched for Krause and those who investigated her death, along with cellphone data and ballistics experts, and people from Krause's community are expected to testify in the three-week trial in Coconino County Superior Court.

Krause and Gooch both grew up around the Mennonite faith but did not know each other, prosecutors said. They tied Gooch to her disappearance and death using cell phone records, Gooch's financial statements and receipts, and surveillance video from the Air Force base, they said. A state crime lab report showed a bullet taken from Krause's skull was fired from a .22-caliber rifle Gooch owned.

Gooch's cellphone was the only one communicating with the same cell towers as Krause's phone before hers dropped off west of Farmington, authorities said. Prosecutors aren't sure why he targeted Krause but argue he disliked Mennonites.

Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, unsuccessfully sought to keep an expert for the prosecution from testifying about the cellphone data that he referred to as “weak science.” He also sought to limit mentions of text messages conversations that Gooch had with his brothers that referred to Mennonites, saying the messages are not evidence of homicidal ill will.

Gooch was raised in a Mennonite community in Wisconsin but never officially became a member, he told investigators. He said he joined the military to escape what he saw as a difficult, sheltered and restricted life, according to sheriff's records.

He was stationed at the Air Force base in October 2019 and worked in equipment maintenance.

Krause was part of a group of conservative Mennonites where women wear head coverings and long dresses or skirts. She moved to Farmington from Texas where she taught school.

On the one-year anniversary of her disappearance, the Mennonite community sent remembrances to Krause's parents. Krause's students said she was a good teacher who read to them and played games with them. Krause preached hard work, even if it went unrecognized, others said.

She spoke Spanish and French, often immersed herself in books and easily could quote scripture. The community remembered her deep, dancing brown eyes and her quiet mannerisms, saying her time in Farmington was short but her impact long-lasting.

Paul Kaufman, general manager of Lamp and Light Publishers where Krause worked, said emotions that slowly were healing have bubbled up with the start of the trial. He said the community wants to feel safe and for whoever was responsible for killing Krause to repent.

“We did not see who showed up at the church that night and kidnapped Sasha,” he said. “We did not see who committed that horrible act. We didn't see that. But God saw that.”

Coconino Panthers senior Jonathan Jaramillo (6) stands on the sidelines during his team's 26-24 victory over Cactus Shadows on Friday at Coconino High School.

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New 50-home rural development approved north of Townsend Winona Road
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The Coconino County Board of Supervisors approved a new rural subdivision within the greater Flagstaff area last week.

The new development, called Walnut Creek Meadows, will include 50 new homes on just over a 151-acre section of property north of Townsend Winona Road that is owned by the Garlin Foster Trust in Flagstaff.

The homes will receive water from the Doney Park Water and will operate using individual onsite septic systems.

There would be two entrances and exits into the community, one off of Meadows Drive, with a second road connecting the community to North Copley Drive and Townsend Winona Road. The latter route would be designed and in place largely as an emergency access point for the community. Fire coverage will be provided by the Summit Fire District.

Roads within the subdivision will be privately owned but paved.

As the board discussed Walnut Creek Meadows, it proved to be uncontroversial and no members of the public spoke in opposing the proposal.

Indeed, one member of the public who said they live in Doney Park stated they believed it would only benefit the larger community.

And that appeared to be the unanimous belief of the supervisors as well.

“This is a well thought-out plan, this subdivision. It sounds like they have really worked closely with our staff,” said Vice Chair Lena Fowler.

There are parts of the project area that contain significantly steep slopes and a flood plain cuts through a section of the property farthest to the east.

But that flood plain has only been roughly mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and thus is fairly approximate.

Ian Braun with Civil Design & Engineering Inc. represented the developer and said they contacted FEMA as they were designing the project and found that the agency had essentially no information on the flood plain in question.

FEMA is expected to review and approve the new channel as the project moves forward.

As such, Braun said they took on the work of mapping the flood plain largely themselves.

“We obviously went through with best engineering practices, did a hydrology study, remapped the flood plain, so that is basically what is shown on our map and that is what FEMA will be accepting,” Braun said.

County staff said the developer has taken both the flood plain and steep slopes into account as they have designed the project. Per county code, on parcels that contain steep slopes or flooding risks, homes will be constructed in specific areas to avoid those risks.

Additionally, within the area of the flood plain, county staff said the developer plans to construct a channel that will hold stormwater and convey it to the south away from the community.

In doing so, the actual flood plain will be narrowed through the area substantially.

There are also between 150 and 200 prairie dog mounds across the 151 acres. One of the conditions requires the relocation of those animals.

Although they expect the impact of development on those animals to be fairly light, Braun said, they will be relocating about 100 prairie dogs offsite.

“We don’t anticipate actually that the road corridor or the construction will displace too many prairie dogs; the lots are quite big. But just as an effort to bring prairie dogs where they are needed in the petrified national forest, we agreed to do a translocation with 100 prairie dogs,” Braun said.

Fences installed will also be those best suited to allow animals such as pronghorn antelope to move through the area unimpaired.