The piles on Nancy Waldrop’s dining room table just keep growing — newspaper clippings, pictures, handwritten letters and maps, all arranged into separate stacks. Waldrop has been collecting the papers since the spring of 2014, when the well that supplies water to her Parks home went dry.

She believes the cause is the Parks Water Hole, a commercial standpipe just to the west of her property where local residents fill their water tanks.

Jim Dewar, who oversees Parks Water Hole, has a different perspective. Dewar maintains it was the third year of severe drought, not any connection between the wells, that caused Waldrop's well to go dry because the water flow into his well has been normal since last October. Waldrop's well, however, is still dry. 

Coconino County should never have permitted the water standpipe, considering the potential for drawdown, said Waldrop, who has spent months lodging complaints with federal, state and local agencies. On Monday, she delivered a handwritten letter to the county urging denial of the standpipe’s conditional use permits, which are up for renewal.

But when the county’s planning and zoning commission hears the permit case next month, its members won’t be allowed to consider anything about water adequacy, supply or sustainability. The law delegates those powers only to the state.

The arrangement puts the county in a position where it hears cases that revolve around water, but then cannot consider that central component when making their decision. The dynamic is nothing new, but it's a challenge that consistently resurfaces, not only in land use cases like the Parks Water Hole, but also in the larger scope of the county’s long term planning.

On the planning side, the issue has come up as the county drafts an update to its comprehensive plan, a document in which water sustainability features prominently. County supervisors concede that without the powers to consider water supplies when regulating development and land use, their ability to make good on those goals is limited.

"Our hands are tied,” Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said.

Forced inconsistency

“The availability of water is one of the most critical factors in planning for the future growth of Coconino County,” the draft language of the county’s updated comprehensive plan says. “...the county needs to begin a process that strives to ensure sustainable water supplies for its residents without compromising the ecological integrity of aquatic and riparian ecosystems.”

But the fact that the county's permitting system allows groundwater pumping to happen anywhere and without any regulation flies directly in the face of the words of the comprehensive plan, said Gary Komers, one of Waldrop’s neighbors who fears his well will soon come up dry.

“The sustainability goals of the comprehensive plan are inconsistent with the unbridled use of our most precious resource, which is water,” Komers said.

Komers is not alone in his views.

“It is very very frustrating to residents and constituents that we cannot take into account groundwater and water quantity in our development and land use decision-making process,” said Art Babbott, chair of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.

Babbott acknowledged possible ripple effects on the county’s future water supplies.

“The potential consequences are that we make decisions that don’t serve the interests of long term hydrological sustainability for this region,” Babbott said. “Whether that plays out or not, I don’t know but that’s certainly the risk of not being able to be given the whole picture.”

A say in water sustainability

The county did come close to expanding its purview over groundwater supply and pumping after the state legislature passed a 2007 law giving cities, towns and counties the option to require new subdivisions to prove a 100-year water supply before they could be built.

But as the county began discussing adopting the program, concerns arose about the potential for such a requirement to deter development and present challenges for cities and towns to comply, Ryan said. Then, before the department of water resources could create rules that would guide implementation of the law, former Gov. Jan Brewer stepped into her post and froze all rulemaking.

Without that regulatory framework, passing an ordinance seemed too risky, so the supervisors dropped the conversation, Ryan said. Another issue is that the current law doesn’t allow groundwater deeper than 1,200 feet to count as part of certain subdivisions’ adequate supply even though in Coconino County depth to groundwater can be 2,000 feet or more.

Despite regulatory hurdles, several of the county’s supervisors said they support gaining more authority over water supply and sustainability.

“The one thing that residents and communities have always asked us is how can you not consider water as a factor in approval of land use proposals?” Supervisor Liz Archuleta said. “We’re out in the Southwest. California is in a water crisis. There’s no way we can’t not consider water.”

There also may be an entirely different tactic the county should pursue, Babbott said.

“As one of five (supervisors) I think it’s worth it for us to have a discussion on what we’re trying to achieve from a hydrological sustainability perspective and approach ADWR and try to define a vehicle that can accomplish that goal,” Babbott said. “With or without a rulemaking moratorium, we should be asking questions about what does our long-term water future look like.”

In lieu of pursuing increased regulatory authority, Ryan said he supports modifying the county's building codes to decrease per-capita water use by requiring improved energy efficiency or water harvesting.

There’s also the option of the county pursuing state designation of the region as an active management area, where groundwater is more heavily regulated, but there hasn’t been significant movement in that direction.

Small successes

Despite the limitations of current state law, Coconino County is making strides on water sustainability, said Rita Maguire, a water attorney and former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“I think Coconino County is kind of at the head of its class,” said Maguire, who has consulted with the county on various water management programs.

She also complimented the Coconino Plateau Water Advisory Council, a group of city, county, tribal, state and federal agencies that meets regularly to identify water resource issues and solutions in the region. The group helped spearhead an inventory of current and future water sources and in 2013 created an affiliate organization to pursue lobbying and funding efforts.

Carl Taylor is a former Coconino County supervisor and was a major proponent of requiring subdivisions to prove a 100-year water supply. But he said even without that power the county is moving in a positive direction on water issues.

“The county is being as progressive as it can be without more authority delegated by the state,” Taylor said.



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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com


Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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