THINKING ABOUT THE PROPOSED UPPER SAN PEDRO BASIN WATER DISTRICT
A proposed "Upper San Pedro Basin Water District" will be on the ballot
in November, for a Yes or No vote. This is CCIPRA's briefing on
the proposed District.
Emphatic thanks to everyone who argued about earlier drafts of this
briefing, and thereby improved its quality. See Note 1 at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm . This report uses pseudonyms (e.g. Friendly Critic) for these indispensable people.
I. THE UPPER SAN PEDRO BASIN
A. HOW MUCH WATER IS IN THE UPPER SAN PEDRO BASIN?
The San Pedro River runs north from Mexico into Cochise County.
The "Upper San Pedro Basin" runs from Mexico to "the narrows" north of
Benson. A link to a map of the Basin is in Note 2 at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm . Almost all of the Basin is in the "Sierra Vista sub-basin," which includes over half of the County's people.
B. GETTING THE WATER: WATER COMPANIES AND PRIVATE WELLS
Water companies are the subject of a Sierra Vista Herald article at
which reported on water supplied by the Bella Vista, Northern Sunrise,
and Southern Sunrise water companies, serving the Sierra Vista,
Whetstone, and Hereford areas, respectively. Bella Vista,
Northern Sunrise, and Southern Sunrise all have the same
ownership: at the top of a long chain of holding companies, the
Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp. (APUC), in Canada. See Note
3 at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm .
Wells, either private or shared with neighbors, are used by many rural
households in Cochise County. Most of the wells have a capacity
of less than 35 gallons per minute. In 2002, about 3200 such
wells served about 14,400 people.
C. WHEN WILL THE WATER RUN OUT?
The Basin has about 20 to 26 million acre-feet of water. If you
had a car with a 16-gallon gas tank, and you filled up once a week for
384 years, that would be one acre-foot - almost 326,000 gallons.
If every person in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington
did the same thing for the same 384 years, that would be about the
volume of water in the Basin.
In 2002, less than 1/20 of 1% of Basin groundwater usage was "net use"
-- water that left the Basin after only one use. That amounted to
about 10,000 acre-feet per year. At that rate, 20 million
acre-feet would last until A.D. 4000.
But in 2005, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) predicted
that with the number of people expected to be here by 2030, about 1/7
of 1% of the Basin's water would be lost every year. If so, the
water would only last until A.D. 2700.
On the other hand, people are conserving water more now than in 2002,
even without the proposed water district. An October 10 editorial
in the Sierra Vista Herald at
includes "It is estimated currently that more than 5,000 acre feet of
water is being drawn out than is being put back in." That's a big
figure, which sounds scary -- but it's only about half of the "net
loss" in 2002. Cutting the net loss in half doubles the time
until the water runs out. Instead of running out in A.D. 4000 or
2700, the dates become A.D. 6000 or 3400.
A citizen notes that if only water within 1500' of the surface is
counted (because it's cheaper to get to than water deeper down), that
reduces the available water by about 40%. The A.D. 6000 or 3400
dates then become A.D. 4400 or 2800.
Those numbers show that there is NO water emergency in the Basin.
The ADWR confirmed that in 2005. Arizona law says that the ADWR
should take over control of water conservation in an area if
-- active management is necessary to preserve the supply of groundwater for future needs; or
-- land subsidence or fissuring is endangering property or potential groundwater storage capacity; or
-- the use of groundwater is causing or threatening a degradation in water quality.
In 2005, the ADWR determined that the Basin didn't meet any of those
tests: active management is not necessary to preserve
groundwater, land subsidence or fissuring is no danger, and the use of
groundwater is not degrading water quality, nor threatening to.
By the State's own standards, there is no water emergency in the Upper
San Pedro Basin.
Despite the lack of a water emergency, the ADWR 2005 report also said
the ADWR would "continue to work with the Upper San Pedro Partnership
as a Partnership member on local water management and planning
efforts." Many organizations make up the USPP -- see
-- but the membership list doesn't undercut the official finding that there's no water emergency in the Basin.
D. MANY ENTITIES ALREADY EXIST TO DEAL WITH WATER
The Upper San Pedro Partnership [USPP] mentioned in the preceding
paragraph is just one of many existing organizations concerned with
water in the Basin. For instance, from the minutes of the Cochise
County Supervisors meeting of September 12, 2006:
"Vice-Chairman Call stated that he would be
traveling to Phoenix on Wednesday to attend the Growing Smarter
Oversight Council meeting and would not be attending the meeting
of the Upper San Pedro Partnership. He stated that he
had attended the Statewide Water Advisory Group ... and
they were looking at the possibility of a Pilot Project ....
He added that the group was considering legislative
proposals to establish Regional Water Management authority ...."
That one paragraph mentions a Growing Smarter
Oversight Council, Upper San Pedro Partnership, Statewide Water
Advisory Group, possible Pilot Project, and possible Regional Water
Management authority. See the minutes at
The USPP soaks up a fair amount of County money and work, in ways that
don't always show clear thinking. For an example, see Note 4
at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm .
The USPP website at
describes the USPP as "21 agencies and organizations working together
to meet the long-term water needs of the Sierra Vista Subwatershed by
achieving sustainable yield of the regional aquifer by 2011 and beyond
to: 1) preserve the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
(SPRNCA), and 2) ensure the long-term viability of Fort Huachuca."
The USPP prepares the "321 report" which is often mentioned in
discussions of water. As to the 321 report, the USPP's history
... the Defense Authorization Act of 2004 requires
the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with ...
Defense and Agriculture, and in cooperation with the [USSP],
to prepare an annual report to Congress that includes the
water use management and conservation measures that have
been implemented and are needed to restore and maintain
the sustainable yield of the regional aquifer by and
after September 30, 2011. This report ... can be found on
But no 321 report since 2007 is on that
website. The USPP's Susan Bronson emails that reports for later
years are available at the Sierra Vista public library but "are
drafts. That is why they are not posted on the website. The
reports go through a lengthy review process including a review by the
Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Defense before being forwarded
to Congress. They are not final reports until approved by
Congress.... As soon as the 2008, 2009 and 2010 reports are
approved by Congress we will post them". This writer doesn't know
why the reports are backed up three years.
E. FORT HUACHUCA
The statute setting up the possibility of the water district -- ARS 48-6401, at
-- includes findings that "maintaining the mission of Fort Huachuca
will strengthen our national defense and ensure and improve the public
safety of the residents of this state, and that the closure or
significant reduction in the fort's mission would adversely impact the
safety and security of the residents of this state and this
nation. Because federal law requires consideration of certain
water issues in evaluating the future of Fort Huachuca, ensuring the
water supply to Fort Huachuca and its surrounding communities will
further protect the public's safety."
It's true that Fort Huachuca does necessary work for national defense,
but as far as public safety along the Mexican border, the Fort appears
to be a nullity. However, if the Fort disbanded, it would be a
disaster to Sierra Vista's economy, so Sierra Vista interests are very
concerned with meeting the water standards set by federal law.
For instance, see
which includes "Unless local governments can attain sustainable yield
of water by 2011, the Fort may lose many of its missions and personnel,
or it may close."
However, the economy of Sierra Vista is not the only issue. The rest of Cochise County deserves to be considered too.
II. THE PROPOSED WATER DISTRICT
The state laws governing the proposed district are in the Arizona Revised Statutes ("ARS") at
Look down that page to Chapter 37, entitled "Upper San Pedro Water
District," which includes links to individual statutes ARS 48-6401
In ARS 48-6401, at
paragraph C says the district would include "a portion of the upper San
Pedro groundwater basin that includes Fort Huachuca, the lands in ...
Sierra Vista and Tombstone and ... Huachuca City and the portion of the
city of Bisbee located in the upper San Pedro groundwater basin, but
not any lands in Santa Cruz county or Pima county and not including
that portion of the city of Bisbee located in the Douglas groundwater
ARS 48-6401(A) has only one purpose, to protect the water supply.
The statute says that the Basin "is a major source of water for the
residents of Cochise county and ... Fort Huachuca, and that Fort
Huachuca and the residents of the basin are dependent on the withdrawal
of water from wells for their water supply for drinking and other
purposes.... conserving and maintaining the groundwater supply by
adoption of this chapter will protect and promote the public's health
and safety by helping to ensure a more reliable water supply."
ARS 48-6403(B), at
adds a second purpose, to maintain the flow of the San Pedro
River: "The purpose and goal of the district are to maintain the
aquifer and base flow conditions needed to sustain the upper San Pedro
river and to assist in meeting the water supply needs and water
conservation requirements for Fort Huachuca and the communities within
An ADWR overview of the proposed District is at
B. THE "DISTRICT ORGANIZING BOARD," THE DOB
The statutes created a District Organizing Board, the DOB. If the
public does not vote for the District by 2012, five years after the
enabling law was passed, the DOB will disappear. See ARS
At the same page, ARS 48-6416(A) says the DOB's members shall be
"1. Five members who are appointed by the
governor and who are qualified electors of the proposed district,
one of whom may represent a city
that is located in the proposed district ... of thirty-five thousand
persons or more [currently James Herrewig, Sierra Vista Community
one of whom may represent a city
that is located in the proposed district ... of less than thirty-five
thousand persons [currently Steve Pauken, Bisbee City Manager],
one of whom may represent a
conservation organization ... [currently Holly Richter, of The Nature
one of whom may represent an
investor-owned utility [currently Rick Coffman, of the Pueblo Del Sol
Water Company, a subsidiary of Castle & Cooke] and
one of whom may represent retired
military personnel or a military support organization [currently Mike
"2. Two members appointed by the president of
the senate and two members appointed by the speaker of the house of
representatives. These members ... may include
persons representing a city, town
or county [currently Carl Robie, Cochise County Director Of Water
a resource based business [currently John Ladd, representing agriculture and ranching]
or a natural resource conservation district [formerly Mary Ann Black, who has resigned]
or other persons who have
personal, business or professional interests in the district [currently
Mike Rutherford, President of Rutherford Industries]."
The DOB is strictly a planning board, although DOB members have been
heard to say that an elected board would not be obligated to follow any
of the plans. The DOB has no authority to tax.
The County provides meeting space to the DOB, and acts as its "fiscal
agent" -- meaning that County employees are doing work for the
DOB. For more details, see Note 5 at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm
. If the District is approved, and the County Supervisors provide
money, then County people from outside the District, with no voice in
it, will pay.
C. PRESENT EFFORTS TO GET SUPPORT FOR THE PROPOSED DISTRICT
First, the DOB hired paid for a survey to find out out what arguments
would work best at convincing people to vote to establish the
District. A report on the survey -- at
-- says the survey "was designed to measure and document baseline
attitudes and opinions among likely voters regarding the formation of a
Water District among residents of the Upper San Pedro Water District
.... This survey can provide baseline awareness and attitudes for
a potential future follow-up survey which could be conducted after the
implementation of the Public Involvement Process -- to measure changes
in public perceptions." In plain English, the survey was designed
to learn what buttons to push in order to make citizens favor forming a
Then, after the survey was completed, came public meetings. For
running them, the DOB paid about $70,000 to Gordley Design.
Gordley's website, full of jargon, is at
In January, this writer attended a Gordley public meeting, then circulated an email report which included:
"The ... meeting was basically aimed at determining how to ... convince people to vote for a permanent Board.
"At this meeting ... the USPWDOB ... split into
three focus groups, with predefined subjects [which] didn't necessarily
fit what people wanted to talk about .... Worse, within groups,
input that wasn't sympathetic to the USPWDOB tended to be discounted
instead of reported. That automatically makes suspect any output
that the USPWDOB reports ....
"In the group I spent most time in, pure science
issues were met with political concerns. When I noted that this
area is desert, and a large population inevitably leads to a large
water deficit so it might be good to limit population, my suggestion
was met with 'the law won't let us do that.' Okay, but the group
was supposedly to discuss science issues.... It's unlikely that
the report from this group will correspond to what people actually
"... When I asked about the 2000-year water supply
in the USP basin, and suggested that there wasn't a shortage of water,
only unwillingness to spend what it takes to get the water, one
response was that the deepest water is too saline to be recovered at
any feasible cost.... later, it turned out that the salinity
argument was pure speculation, with no evidence to back it up....
The process will have to be reformed a lot before its results can be
trusted. [See Note 6 at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm .]
"In the finance group, rural people expressed
concerns that sheer population would end up with Sierra Vista
controlling the Board, if one is permanently elected.... The
moderator was not able to answer the question, If people did vote to
give the board the power to tax, could people un-vote that power later?"
From all reports, other Gordley meetings were similar: aimed at
promoting the appearance of meaningful public input into a process
whose outcome had already been determined by insiders.
The DOB may not have been acting legally in paying for the survey and
the public meetings. ARS 48-6416, the statute governing the DOB
-- mandates in paragraph B that the DOB "shall prepare and provide to the public the following:
"1. A detailed plan of organization for the upper San Pedro water district.
"2. A financial plan by which adequate
revenues will be generated to support the district's activities....
"3. A comprehensive plan for the conservation,
reuse, recharge and augmentation of water in the district designed to
achieve the goal of the district.... The organizing board shall
consult with the director of water resources when developing the plan.
"4. An election plan for the district that
includes an election for the formation of the district, an election for
members of the board of directors of the district, if formation is
approved, and approval of and authority for the district to generate
revenue pursuant to section 48-6406...."
Nothing in ARS 48-6416 contemplates the DOB spending money to see how
to influence the public to favor the proposed district.
Certainly, all of the DOB's stated duties could have been done without
spending money on what amounts to market research aimed at selling the
product. It's not known whether the DOB sought legal advice
before spending money on matters not expressed or implied by the
enabling statute. Even if the process was legal, the money could
have been better spent on science and engineering than on trying to
persuade citizens to vote for the district no matter what the science
and engineering showed.
D. EARLIER EFFORTS TO GET SUPPORT FOR THE PROPOSED DISTRICT
Before using Gordley, the people who wanted centralized control of the
Basin used a different tactic to influence citizens: spreading
ignorance and panic.
A few years ago, during the real estate boom, big builders had a real
friend in Cochise County Supervisor Pat Call. They touted big
house tracts as ways to conserve water, and Call exaggerated how much
water rural people used, and spread the false idea that big house
tracts would conserve water. Call argued that rural people use
about 312 gallons per person per day -- about three times what they
Of course, Call's argument that housing developments would conserve
water was silly on its face, when applied to a house tract of, say, 300
houses, with 780 people, on a square mile. An area that might
previously have been home for just a few dozen people, or even nobody,
couldn't possibly use less water after hundreds of people were crammed
Also, CCIPRA showed precisely, and repeatedly, how Call's number was
phony, Call never explained or apologized, but eventually, after enough
exposure, he finally stopped using the phony number. See Note 7
at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm .
And finally, in February of 2010, the Sierra Vista Herald article at
included "Bella Vista households come in around 6,600 gallons of water
per month. Northern Sunrise customers average about 5,800 ... and
Southern Sunrise households ... 5,600 gallons". An average
household is about 2.6 people, so the water usage is about 83 gallons
per person per day from Bella Vista (Sierra Vista area), 73 from
Northern Sunrise (Whetstone area), and 71 from Southern Sunrise
(Hereford area). These numbers are only about 1/4 of the phony
"312" number that was used to spread panic -- and rural people will use
even less. The International Arid Lands Consortium said in 2003
that "a typical household that gets its water from a private well or
cistern uses about 200 gallons for a family of four," or 50 gallons per
person per day.
Friendly Critic suggests that there was never much concern about water
usage by individuals, but that the focus was always on conserving the
flow of the Upper San Pedro. However, County Supervisors'
meetings often discussed the water supply for people. See Note 8
at http://littlebigdog.net/WaterNotes.htm .
E. IF THE DISTRICT WERE CREATED, WHAT COULD IT DO?
If the District is approved, an elected permanent Board (totally
separate from the DOB, which will disband) will run it. As long
as the Board claimed to be acting for its statutory purposes (listed in
paragraph II.A) it could do almost anything related to land, buildings,
and water. See ARS 48-6401, -6403, and -6408.
The Board would have quite a lot of power aimed at raising money.
For instance, under ARS 48-6406, the Board could set an election to
impose a "transaction privilege tax" on water delivered to customers
within the district. The Board could not set a tax by itself, but
if the voters approved a tax, it could be up to 50 cents per thousand
gallons. If about 70,000 people ended up in the District, using
an average of 3000 gallons per month (i.e. 100 gallons per day), that
would be $1.50 per month per person in addition to the actual water
bill -- or about $100,000 a month.
The Board's powers would not be unlimited. For statutory limits, see ARS 48-6410, at
As the Sierra Vista Herald article of August 20 noted, "things the
district cannot do ... include establishing a tax without voter
approval, metering private wells and ordering specific conservation
methods. The elected board could not dictate where a development
will be located, but could offer help to developers in establishing
water sources so there is no harm to the river, which is under the
protection of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management." In other
words, the district won't be able to tell you what to do -- but it will
be able to make you wish you had.
Board MEMBERS would be unpaid, but STAFF would be well treated.
As of February, $400,000 per year was planned for three staffers.
Per month: $20,000 for pay. $6333 for benefits. $2583
for outside support. $1667 to lease cars etc. $2750 office
There are rumors that one (or more) of the DOB's members hope to get a
staff spot. "Conflict of interest" is defined in ARS 38-503(B), at
Any public officer or employee who has, or whose
relative has, a substantial interest in any decision of a
public agency shall make known such interest in the
official records of such public agency and shall refrain
from participating in any manner as an officer or employee
in such decision.
The DOB is a public agency, so that law applies. A member of the
DOB who politicked other members about becoming one of the well-paid
staffers might easily run afoul of the law.
Politicking other members of the DOB outside of meetings would violate
another law, the Open Meeting Law. ARS 48-6416 also includes
paragraph D, which says the DOB "is a public body that is subject to
title 38, chapter 3, article 3.1 relating to open meetings." For
a discussion of the Open Meeting Law, a very important protection of
open government, see
III. OTHERS' THOUGHTS, PRO AND CON, ABOUT CREATING THE DISTRICT
A. Friendly Critic believes "a long term regional approach must
be taken to conserve and augment the aquifer but I don't think a new
special district is necessary or desirable.... a new special
district, probably directed by people from Sierra Vista who want
continued rapid growth is not, to my mind, a good idea.... why
should we approve a new special district when Natural Resource
Conservation Districts are already in existence, have the same powers
and are already into construction of projects?... I just don't
want to get caught up in a pipe dream of massive new water supplies
enabling development at an even more rapid pace made possible by
bringing in CAP water and taxing everyone for a statewide program."
Rachel Thomas has sent work about the powers of an NRCD; see
However, SVSkeptic notes that an NRCD does not actually have the same powers as the proposed District, only some of them.
B. Marnee Ford has several worries about the possibility of a Board and District. Two of Ford's worries are
-- Proponents claim we are running out of water, so why does the County promote growth, and allow golf courses?
-- The San Pedro River was never like the Mississippi or the Snake;
there is not much natural current flow. Yet the planners'
brilliant idea is to run water [in] an open canal, where it will
evaporate faster than we can use it.
There's a dispute about Ford's third worry: "We allow the trees
along the San Pedro to multiply, but each tree takes from 50 to 100
gallons a day." SVSkeptic responds "the tree shading of water,
plus the tree usage, is less than what would evaporate if there was
unshaded water." In support, SVSkeptic has forwarded a document at
and pointed to pages 16 and 17. The information on those pages
shows that "evapotranspiration" (the sum of evaporation from a body of
water, and the "exhaust" of water from plants into the air) over
semishaded water is less than evaporation over unshaded water.
SVSkeptic is correct on this point.
C. From a person who critiqued this briefing a lot, and favors the proposed district:
Unless Sierra Vista controls growth, the San Pedro
River will dry up and Fort Huachuca will be relocated. The fate
of the Fort is tied to the health of the San Pedro River. That's
why I'll vote YES on establishing the new USP Water District.
To those who say we have lots of water, I say
perhaps; but is it in the right places? Does it keep the San
Pedro River flowing? No. The water deficit has continued to
grow along with rapid growth in Sierra Vista and it is almost too late
to save either the River or the Fort.
The new water district could move beyond "studying
the problem" (and obscuring science to satisfy growth interests in the
process) to actually implementing conservation projects to reduce water
consumption, capture/store water runoff and restoring river flow.
Saving the River is how we will keep Fort Huachuca in Cochise County
but the Fort, too, must limit its size which would slow growth
Personally, I'd like the Fort relocated and
downsized along with the entire military budget because we would then
be forced to develop a more diverse economy here at home and throughout
the country. Diversifying our economic base would mean more and
different jobs available for the young people who now have limited
employment opportunities other than enlisting or moving. So I'm
voting YES to forming a new Water District in November. And then
watching them closely.
D. Sandy Kunzer has listed points against the District; see
E. The Palominas Tea Party takes no official position, but has
forwarded around an email by Joanne Daley, which in this writer's
opinion deserves wider circulation. See the text of the email at
There is no water emergency in the Basin. In 2005, the ADWR
declined to declare the Basin as an "Active Management Area" that needs
The proposed district might be used to facilitate house tracts in areas
where water exists but is too expensive to pump from the local
aquifer. Such overbuilding is not a good idea.
The proposed district might help the economy of Sierra Vista by
reducing the possibility that Fort Huachuca will be reduced in size, or
move away entirely. But the economy of Sierra Vista shouldn't
determine the future of Cochise County.
The proposed district would set up yet another bureaucracy whose major
effect would be to make local people pay for unnecessary government
control over their lives.
The proposed district is not necessary.