Sonoran Desert dwellers between Tucson and Phoenix might one day be able to boat the Colorado River without leaving their backyards. Rural Pinal County says it wants to take a billion gallons of Colorado River water and pump it into a manmade lake.
Thanks to the Central Arizona Project, the
three-quarter mile, $7 million reservoir in the Picacho Lake
Recreation Area could fill by December 2001. Sun and aridity will
dry up the shallow lake unless it's replenished each year, but
Cheryl Banta of the county's Public Works Department says that
level of evaporation is "normal, for the desert."
Normal, too, is the state's growing demand for
water. But while CAP gets 1.5 million acre-feet of the Colorado
River annually, the project's users, including municipalities,
industry, farmers and Indian tribes, don't use it all - yet. Bob
Barrett, spokesman for CAP, says some users have permanent CAP
allotments but have never taken a drop. That means some of that 1.5
million acre-feet is currently available through an "excess water
contract" for a new desert lake. Barrett warns, however, that the
situation will change.
"I can stand here and tell
you that for the next 30 years there's going to be excess water,"
Barrett says. "I'm pretty sure of that. But at some point, all of
our customers will take their allotment. At that point, Picacho
gets no water."
Not unless a permanent water
right becomes available, he adds. If an existing user decides to
sell, Picacho could then try to buy or lease rights for a time. The
odds of that are "pretty fair," Barrett says. "It's a question of
price." Indian tribes may sell or lease their water rights free of
price controls, at least for now.
cross that bridge when it comes to it. Arizonans clamor for
water-based recreation, Banta says, and for many Tucson residents,
this would be their closest lake. Patagonia Lake, south of Tucson,
hosts 295,000 people a year, and Picacho would attract even more,
Besides, she adds, right now those
billion gallons just float down the Colorado River. "We're not
asking for an allocation that's currently going to farmers or
cities or anyone. That's why we think this is a great idea, because
it's not being used."
Critics say that unused
CAP water could better be put to work recharging depleted aquifers;
even with CAP, Tucson's is dropping six feet a year. And Kieran
Suckling, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, says
creating a fake lake in the desert resembles "clear-cutting a
forest in Minnesota and planting cactuses."
Suckling has another idea for those billion
gallons: Save the river's dying delta. "You could leave the water
in the Colorado River," he says. "God forbid anyone think of
* Karen Mockler