A court decision that some say could dry up the San Pedro River may sound far removed from your CAP-supplied kitchen faucet.
In fact, Thursday’s unfortunate ruling shows how Arizona’s current water law threatens the value of your entire home, not just your faucet.
Dissent blasts ruling
The state Supreme Court gave the go ahead to a massive development near Sierra Vista by saying current law does not prohibit it – even though the court acknowledges the area’s future water supply is uncertain.
In his dissent, Chief Justice Scott Bales said the decision allows the Arizona Department of Water Resources “to ignore the legal inadequacy of a proposed water supply until the problem becomes a reality.”
At issue is the proposed Tribute development of 7,000 commercial and residential units near Sierra Vista and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a federal preserve that has reserved water rights to protect the flow of the river.
The area’s water supply is uncertain
The exact amount of that reserved water will be decided as part of a water rights case called the Gila Watershed Adjudication, which has been slogging through the courts for decades.
Without knowing how much water the conservation area will need, the Arizona Department of Water Resources gave the nod in 2013 to Tribute, which will use groundwater.
ADWR said there was a 100-year supply of water for Tribute, a determination that is required because Cochise County took advantage of a state law that allows counties to mandate Adequate Water Supply certification before a development can proceed.
Future water supply could be impacted
Supporters of the San Pedro sued, saying ADWR should have – but didn’t – take into account the federal claim to water for the conservation area, which could ultimately limit groundwater pumping.
The Supreme Court ruling acknowledges this.
In a footnote, the ruling suggests developers notify potential homebuyers that the “development’s water rights may be adversely affected by the outcome” of the adjudication.
The court also pointed out that such fair warning is not required by law.
Blessing developers, not consumers
In his dissent, Chief Justice Bales hit this one hard:
“The majority prioritizes the interests of subdivision developers over those of homeowners,” whose property may one day be “rendered almost worthless due to an inadequate water supply,” Bales wrote.
Arizona’s groundwater strategy: When wells run dry, keep pumping
But the court majority stood on what it interpreted as the “legislature’s intent to provide only limited protection to consumers and simultaneously encourage development.”
In ruling that Arizona law does not require ADWR to assess unquantified federal water rights when making decisions about the adequacy of water supply for development, the court rejected the more rational view of the plaintiffs and the court’s dissenting minority.
For Arizona’s sake, change the law
The ruling ignores consumer and environmental needs.
Now it’s up to lawmakers to clarify the law so the courts and developers understand the need to look at the whole picture when making decisions about water.
The court identified other things that need fixing.
Rural Arizona has a right to grow and pursue economic development, but that should happen under water rules that protect the entire state.
How this hurts you
Everybody’s property values get tarnished if Arizona looks buffoonish about water – and this ruling is a clown’s car of mischief. Our reputation on water management also matters when it comes economic development.
National critics who bash Arizona as Unsustainable Land pounce on any hint of residents of far-flung subdivisions pounding sand and weeping over their lost investment. The image is popular, as a recent New York Times magazine article made clear.
This court ruling will provide more fodder.
The supporters of the San Pedro riparian area promise to appeal this decision in federal court. Good.
In the meantime, Arizona needs to refine water laws so they reflect the state’s best long-term interests. That won’t happen without a lot of pressure from Arizonans who have a lot to lose.
Reach Valdez at firstname.lastname@example.org.