Incorporated in 1978, Prescott Valley has an auto dealership built into a hillside overlooking the main drag. Its economy is fed by growth: About 33 percent of Prescott Valley’s sales tax revenue comes from the sale of new buildings, and 15 percent of Yavapai County’s jobs are in construction. (The statewide average is 9 percent.)

By 2050, the Verde River Basin — which takes in both the east and west sides of the Mingus Mountains — is expected to be home to some 540,000 people. That doesn’t include the planned developments in the Big Chino, only now starting to shape up, which could add tens of thousands more. Today, the entire county has about 220,000 people, two-thirds of them in the Prescott area. But people on both sides of the basin are already draining the aquifers that feed the river.

The Verde Valley cities east of the Mingus Mountains — Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Camp Verde — currently use nearly twice as much water each year as Prescott Valley and its neighbors west of the mountains, federal records show. Much of the Verde Valley’s water use involves irrigation for alfalfa farms. Some of that water — by one estimate, as much as 50 percent — returns to the river after it filters through fields and pastures. But even excluding agriculture, the valley today still slurps down about as much water as the Big and Little Chino sub-basins serve to Prescott and its neighbors.

As he walked downriver this spring, Clarkdale Mayor Von Gausig stopped at the Cottonwood Ditch, a 12-foot-wide irrigation canal gushing with river water being diverted toward neighboring alfalfa fields, lawns and gardens. It’s one of 20 ditches in the Verde Valley that have the right to take as much water as users want — with no monitoring by local or state officials.

The Cottonwood Ditch Association has built a 10-foot-tall earthen berm two-thirds of the way across the river to funnel water into the ditch. In recent dry years, the association has extended the dam across the riverbed to catch even more water, at times leaving the river dry for the next quarter-mile. The last such dry-out came four years ago and lasted several weeks; it turned the Verde’s fate into a public controversy, Von Gausig said. “They (the irrigators) realize it’s politically a bad thing to do,” the mayor said. “I think people didn’t realize it could happen. They were shocked.”

There’s no systematic study showing how far or fast the water table is dropping beneath the Verde Valley. But Nathan White, who has drilled private home and business wells in the valley for 30 years, said that he’s been deepening wells about 200 feet in recent years because of falling water levels.

One of his customers last year was Richard Adams, a physician who moved from Phoenix to Clarkdale in search of a small-town atmosphere in which to raise his son. A year ago, Adams noticed the household water pressure dropping suddenly and repeatedly after he turned the water on. His home, in the high desert about a mile from the river, is outside the Clarkdale water system, so Adams paid White $12,000 to deepen his well from about 280 to about 600 feet deep.

Today, Adams is anxious about the future of his well and his home, worried not just about continuous growth in the valley but also about the Prescott pipeline. “We may be some of the first people (in Arizona) to confront the reality of running out of water,” Adams said.

 

The Prescott area lives under stricter water-use rules than the Verde Valley because it lies inside an Active Management Area, one of five in Arizona governed by the state Department of Water Resources. By Arizona law, such areas are supposed to reach “safe yield” — that is, a situation in which the area recharges groundwater at the same rate it is being pumped — by 2025.

But in the Prescott area, water levels have dropped at least half a foot each year going all the way back to 1982, and more quickly since 1994 — anywhere from 1.5 to 4 feet a year. Today, the area is pumping its groundwater supplies almost twice as fast as they’re being replenished.

In January 1999, the state water agency declared that Prescott and the neighboring cities of Prescott Valley and Chino Valley were “mining” groundwater (that is, taking more from aquifers than was being replenished). The decision meant that all new subdivisions in the management area would be restricted in how much groundwater they could use. But the ruling hardly meant that growth would stop.

In the preceding three years, local governments had issued “plats,” or formal approvals, for new subdivisions that will hold 32,106 homes — enough to double the management area’s population, state records show. About two-thirds of those were issued during a four-month window, legally built into state regulations, between the date that the water department tentatively declared the basin to be mining groundwater and the time that the state made its final water-mining declaration.

With those homes exempt from the water-mining restrictions, another 10,000 acre-feet of water can be pumped each year that otherwise would have stayed in the ground. The additional water is almost 15 percent more than would be supplied by Prescott’s planned pipeline from the Big Chino.

 

If any single person has symbolized Yavapai’s expansion, it is Carol Springer. A former state treasurer and legislator, a retired real estate broker, and now a Yavapai County supervisor, Springer, 70, has long been at the forefront of a powerful property-rights movement that has pushed hard and generally successfully against almost any statewide regulation of development.

Springer’s worldview is clear. A Republican, like virtually all Yavapai political leaders, she has a history of fiscal conservatism that she traces to raising five kids as a single mom. She originally was spurred to run for the Legislature back in the 1980s by her predecessor, who had voted for a tax increase as a recession loomed.