Sep 7, 2022 - Politics

Feds clear way for Queen Creek to buy Colorado River water

Illustration of blueprints with water in the middle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Queen Creek received a long-awaited green light from the Bureau of Reclamation to finalize a controversial plan to buy water directly from farmland along the Colorado River.

Driving the news: The Bureau of Reclamation on Friday issued a document known as a Finding of No Significant Impact for Queen Creek's plan.

  • It clears the way for the town and the bureau to sign contracts and finalize several other agreements for the water, which Queen Creek could begin receiving as early as January, utility director Paul Gardner tells Axios.
  • "It was a pretty monumental decision," Gardner says.

Details: Queen Creek will pay GSC Farm LLC about $21 million for perpetual rights to 2,033 acre-feet of water per year.

  • The farmland is in Cibola, an unincorporated community along the Colorado River in La Paz County.

Why it matters: The agreement will help ensure a water supply for Queen Creek as it continues its rapid growth. Its population went from 26,361 in 2010 to 59,519 a decade later.

Between the lines: If the water were used for new housing, it could supply about 6,000 homes, Gardner said.

  • Housing subdivisions in the five groundwater "active management areas" must demonstrate to the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) that they have a 100-year supply of water.

Of note: The Colorado River basin, which includes Arizona, is in the midst of a 22-year megadrought that has led to several cuts to our state's allocation of water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which transports water from the river to other parts of the state.

The other side: Queen Creek's plan had plenty of detractors, including officials in La Paz, Mohave and Yuma counties along the river, and state Rep. Regina Cobb (R), who has spent much of her career in the legislature focused on water issues.

Cobb says she is worried about the effect that the water transfer will have on Cibola and is concerned that the bureau set a new precedent for similar deals in both Arizona and California.

  • She says she would've been disappointed if the bureau had taken this action when ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke recommended approval in 2020, but the drought situation has become significantly worse since then.
  • "It seems bizarre to me that they would make this decision, at this time especially," Cobb tells Axios. "Why are you doing it at a time when you're telling all the states, 'Hey, if you guys don't come up with a plan we're going to come up with it for you?'"

What's next: There are still additional steps that must be completed before the plan becomes final, including executing agreements involving the town, GSC Farm, CAP and the bureau.

  • Buschatzke emphasized that though the bureau found that Queen Creek's proposal will have no environmental impact, those other steps must be completed before there can be final approval.
  • Queen Creek spokesperson Constance Halonen-Wilson said she expects that to go smoothly.

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