No formal development plans have been announced, but the CVCF’s owners have sunk $1 million into test drilling to learn more about the water supply. The owners of the 51,000-acre Yavapai Ranch, which hired a Phoenix firm as a development partner, are still finalizing a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service and don’t know precisely how many acres they’ll have to develop in the Big Chino area. But they expect to submit a development scheme to the county in two months.

Meanwhile, Verde Valley and Prescott-area officials — who would seem to have reasons to limit Big Chino development — can’t even agree on how to cooperate.

They are in a verbal slugfest over the Verde River Basin Partnership, a group of local, state and federal officials, nonprofit groups and community activists that is supposed to conduct scientific studies about the river’s future. The group was created by a land-swap bill, pushed through by U.S. Sen. John McCain, aimed at trading tens of thousands of acres of private land owned by the Yavapai Ranch for tens of thousands of acres of Forest Service land in the area.

Despite the endorsement of McCain, a Republican, the Prescott-area cities and Yavapai County government have quit the group or refused to join, partly out of what they say is concern that it is held captive by “special interests” out to stop growth and the pipeline. They’ve formed their own Upper Verde Watershed Protection Coalition to look for ways of mitigating the pipeline’s damage to the river — should it occur.

The group-related conflicts burst into the open at a meeting of the watershed protection coalition late in March. An audience member asked if the coalition had considered the science developed by the Verde partnership in drawing up the coalition’s mitigation plans.

“I don’t recognize what the partnership is doing,” shot back a brusque Springer, seated at the front of the meeting room with other coalition representatives.

Prescott Valley’s Munderloh, standing to the side, interjected diplomatically that “coordination with other groups will be a key aspect of what we’re doing.”

“Good for you for giving the politically correct answer,” Springer told him.

All the same, if there were any hope for a water ceasefire, it would seem to stem from shared opposition to the planned mega-developments on the grasslands northwest of Prescott.

Prescott officials who favor the pipeline, for instance, agree with environmentalists that the mega-developments could threaten not just the river but the water supplies that cities need for their growth. Verde Valley leaders, on the other hand, hope that officials on both sides of the mountain can quit throwing “grenades” and unite to stop the Big Chino projects. But one key official may not be sympathetic to growth limits of any kind.

Opening a huge map of Yavapai County, with public lands colored in black and private lands colored white, Springer pointed to the only large section of white that’s still vacant: more than 800,000 acres in and around the Big Chino basin. At the county’s current zoning requirements, that’s room for 400,000 new homes.

Since only 25 percent of the county’s land is privately owned, Springer said, “I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone where this growth will occur and why we have to accommodate it.”

Right now, there’s not much local governments can do about the development plans, except to try to raise money to buy the land. Arizona law doesn’t allow counties to reject new subdivisions in rural areas for lack of water. A bill is moving through the Legislature to give counties that authority, but it would require a unanimous vote by county supervisors to adopt the rule. Springer has already come out against the bill, making it highly unlikely that any Yavapai County subdivisions would be turned down.

Arizona Department of Water Resources director Herb Guenther is wrestling with what he sees as a dysfunctional water management scheme in the Prescott area — a scheme that’s underpinned by the state’s failure to require adequate water supplies for development in rural areas. He sees the entire region in denial about the problems caused by the overdrafting of groundwater. He calls the Prescott pipeline nothing more than an interim solution to the region’s water problems.

The groundwater model study being developed by the U.S.G.S. could provide answers to many of the questions now being raised. The model will plug in a just-finished set of growth projections for Yavapai County and try to determine how fast groundwater moves from one place to another, to get a better handle on how quickly the Verde could be lowered by pumping.

“Nobody knows what they’ve got up there,” Guenther said in an interview. “There is no committed water supply. There’s nothing to say that a basin has X number of acre-feet to support X number of people for 100 years. Another problem is that we are only looking 100 years ahead.”

Now 66, Guenther can still recall his high school days in Phoenix back in the 1950s, when he gave a talk to the Future Farmers of America. He uses an experience with his senior class project — the irrigation of a barley pasture with ditchwater — as a metaphor for Arizona’s current water wars.

The barley fields lay in what’s now a highly urbanized area of Northwest Phoenix. After he turned the ditchwater onto his fields from a headgate, he would run along the property, closing side gates leading from the ditch to other pastures and homes, so they couldn’t get access to the barley field’s water.

But by the time he got back to his pasture, homeowners along the ditch route had reopened the side gates, “borrowing, actually stealing your water,” and leaving him with barely a trickle.

Tony Davis is an environmental reporter for the Arizona Daily Star. You can contact him at tdavis@dakotacom.net or tdavis789@yahoo.com

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.