But in 1992, she pushed a bill through the Legislature authorizing the Prescott pipeline, which now stands to cost sponsoring cities $192 million — not counting interest. Her bill authorized Prescott to tap water from the Big Chino sub-basin, which lies north of the Little Chino sub-basin where the city has historically sunk its wells. Twelve years later, Prescott paid $23 million to buy a ranch in the Big Chino to obtain its water rights.
Springer’s bill created the only exception anywhere in Arizona to a previously approved ban on inter-basin water transfers — a law aimed at preventing one region from stripping another of its water resources, Chinatown-style. Her explanation for the need for the transfer is that a community must “grow or die.”
“If we can’t grow at all in the future, because we lose our right to pump groundwater, we will cease to exist,” Springer said. “There is no such thing as a static kind of a situation in terms of a community. You can’t not grow at all and survive. We have to have some element of growth.”
The Big Chino transfer bill wasn’t Springer’s only political effort relating to water supplies in the Verde Basin. Just last year, she chaired the group behind a successful statewide “takings” initiative that requires compensation of any landowner who can prove a new regulation reduces his property value. Some say the initiative could make it harder for the state to regulate development in rural areas with inadequate water supplies.
And in 1994, she co-sponsored a bill that allowed Arizona landowners to split their lots into as many as five pieces — up from three in the past — without having to gain approval for a formal subdivision. Because lots created in this way usually require their own water wells, this bill also nurtured a proliferation of “exempt” wells across rural areas — that is, wells that pump no more than 35 gallons a minute, but have no metering or regulation of their water use. As of this March, Yavapai County had more than 27,000 exempt wells — more than any other county in the state — and was getting 400 to 500 new ones each year. At least 2,500 exempt wells lie within five miles of the springs that feed the Upper Verde.
Critics accuse Springer and like-minded local officials of being “addicted” to growth. She responds that growth is inevitable, and she is simply trying to accommodate it. Many local residents have been scared into believing that the area has a water crisis by “extremists who preach doom and gloom,” she says.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get out a reasonable message that we have enough water in Arizona to serve our population and to serve reasonable growth. The water is not always where people are, so getting it involves the expense in transporting it. Those kinds of issues we are going to have to continue to deal with.
“But at this point in time, we have no immediate crisis.”
Chip Davis is also a Yavapai County supervisor and a Republican, but that’s where his resemblance to Springer stops. Springer represents part of Prescott and rural areas to its northwest, including the Big Chino Basin; Davis is elected from the Verde Valley. He was raised in a ranching family that has run cattle amid the mesquite and catclaw along Blind Indian Creek, about an hour’s drive south of Prescott, since the 1880s.
Rather than Springer’s “grow or die” view of development, Davis, 48, said his approach is to “build what you are capable of sustaining.’’ He makes a point of saying that he believes that ranchland is still ranchland, not subdivisions waiting to happen, and that he doesn’t believe growth in rural areas is inevitable. It’s not just water that he sees as a potential limit to growth; he thinks it’s unfair to saddle taxpayers with the bill to extend public services into “the middle of nowhere.”
“I was raised with the idea that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. I think God’s beauty is a heckuva lot nicer than man’s beauty,” Davis said.
Springer’s water-transfer bill passed with almost no opposition because in 1992, he says, people didn’t understand the connection between the Big Chino aquifer and the Verde River. “Arizona is a fairly young state, and people in rural Arizona were not as sophisticated and experienced,” Davis said. “We were not aware of the bill. There wasn’t much media coverage.
“In a way, it’s refreshing now. Ten years ago, there wasn’t a water issue in rural Arizona. There was actually a water issue, but people didn’t know about it. Now, they do.”
One of the reasons people know about it now is Laurie Wirt, an outsider who hammered home the connection between the Big Chino aquifer and the river. Wirt was a geochemist for the United States Geological Survey who had been studying the Verde on and off since the early 1990s. Working out of the agency’s Denver and Tucson offices, she was also a river-lover who had rafted the Verde repeatedly and was concerned that it would suffer the same fate as the Santa Cruz, Gila, Rio Grande and other Southwestern rivers that had dried up or lost much of their flow due to pumping, cattle grazing and diversion. She was killed last June in a rafting accident in northern Colorado at age 48, only a few months after publishing the last of several studies of the Verde linking its water supply with the Big Chino.
Wirt had collected samples on the Verde off and on since 1991, and, as her friends in the scientific and environmental communities note, she was above all a scientist. But she was of a different stripe than the average government researcher, taking an activist approach with her research, recalled Steve Monroe, a former survey hydrologist who rafted and worked with Wirt as far back as the early 1990s. She met regularly with citizen groups to talk about the Verde and donated money to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has been fighting to stop the Prescott pipeline.
“She saw the connection between the science and social issues and political issues, and that’s not normally the mission of U.S.G.S.,” said Monroe, who now works for the National Park Service. “A lot of times people look at U.S.G.S. as an objective scientific agency. Some people take it a little further.”
Through the 1990s, scientific disputes over the Big Chino’s link to the Verde waxed and waned. Back in the mid-1970s, water-level data gathered by U.S.G.S. showed that groundwater in the Big Chino flowed directly toward the river. But in 1991, a study done for Prescott concluded that a clay layer in the Big Chino blocked its groundwater from reaching the Verde. Three years later, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation published a study contradicting the Prescott study, and the clay-layer theory has since been generally discredited.
In 2000, Wirt and retired U.S.G.S. hydrologist Win Hjalmarson, an outspoken critic of the pipeline plan, collaborated on a report that combined isotope analysis, stream flow and rainfall records, groundwater documentation and geologic information to conclude that at least 80 percent of the Upper Verde’s flow came from the Big Chino.
They didn’t have much money, so Wirt, then based in Denver, flew to Arizona to work on her own time and raised money to publish their report. Their work refuted a 1997 study by Arizona State University that said the Verde’s prime water source was Big Black Mesa north of the river. The groundwater level on the mesa was slightly lower than at the springs feeding the Verde — “strong physical evidence” that the mesa wasn’t a source, they wrote.