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Securing Arizona's Water Future

Central Highlands Planning Area Water Supply - Surface Water

Water supplies in the Central Highlands Planning Area include surface water, groundwater and effluent.  Central Arizona Project (CAP) water diverted from the Colorado River via the CAP canal is stored in the planning area but is not utilized within it. 

Surface Water

Surface water in the planning area is subject to complex legal conditions which affect use of the supply. Discussed in this section are the surface water supplies that are physically available, the legal framework that regulates its use and a discussion of the surface water rights system in Arizona.

Physical Supplies

The Salt and Verde rivers, as well as the Gila River located south of the planning area, are the primary in-state sources of surface water in Arizona.  Relatively high elevations along the Mollogan Rim and in the White Mountains, with associated rainfall and snowfall, make the Salt and Verde watersheds extremely productive.  However, because flows in the Salt and Verde rivers are strongly influenced by precipitation, the quantity of flow and water levels in reservoirs along the rivers can fluctuate widely due to climatic variations.

Sullivan Lake Dam

Sullivan Lake Dam, Verde River Basin.  Surface water in the planning area is subject to complex legal conditions that affect use of the supply.

Dams and reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers are operated by SRP to store and release water for the benefit of agricultural, municipal and industrial users in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  These supplies are generally not available for use in the planning area except for small amounts used for recreation and other purposes at each reservoir.  The water stored in the SRP reservoir system illustrates the relationship between downstream water demand and precipitation and snowfall in the watershed.  As shown in Figure 5.0-16, storage has fluctuated as water is collected and then released to meet water demands. For example, the impact of drought conditions can be observed during 1989 and again beginning in the late 1990s, and storage recovery is seen in 2005 following a wet winter.  As of July 1, 2009, storage in the Salt River system was 94% of capacity. 

Figure 5.0-16 Water Stored on May 1st in SRP Reservoirs on the Verde and Salt Rivers, 1980-2006

System Storage 1980-2008

The total capacity of the SRP reservoir system is shown on Figure 5.0-6. Capacity on the Salt River system is over 2.0 maf, primarily at Roosevelt Lake. The capacity of the reservoir was increased by 20% with completion of a 77-foot dam heightening project in 1996.  By comparison, the Verde River system reservoirs are considerably smaller with a storage capacity of about 302,000 acre-feet and average annual inflows exceeding storage capacity.  Consequently, the Verde reservoirs are managed to minimize the potential for spill during the winter months, with releases of water during the fall, winter and spring (Ester and Reigle, 2001).  Storage volumes in the Verde River reservoirs, particularly in Horseshoe Lake, have been reduced to almost zero at times during recent drought years.  On June 1, 2007, storage in the total Verde system had been reduced to 27% of capacity but by June 1, 2009 had increased to 63% of capacity.

In addition to providing a major source of water to the Phoenix metropolitan area, surface water generated in the planning area is an important supply for cultural water uses in the Salt River, Tonto Creek and Verde River basins where it also supports extensive riparian habitat.  In the Verde River Basin surface water is used for golf course irrigation and springs supply Jerome’s municipal water supply. Surface water is diverted from the Verde River for agricultural use primarily in the Verde Valley Sub-basin of the Verde River Basin where most farming occurs along the river. During periods of drought, surface water shortfalls are met by groundwater pumping. (ADWR, 2000) Reportedly, a relatively small volume of surface water is also utilized for irrigation in the Big Chino Valley (WAC, 2004).

Morenci Mine

Morenci Mine, Southeast Arizona Planning Area.  Large volumes of surface water, often more than 5,000 AFA have been transferred from the Salt River basin via the Black River to the Morenci Mine.

In the Salt River drainage upstream of the Salt River reservoirs, surface water diversions are primarily for irrigation from Tonto Creek and its tributaries and along the Salt River.  At elevations above 4,000 feet, surface water from springs and streams has supplied small irrigated parcels (ADWR, 1992).  It is not known if surface water availability has been an issue for surface water users upstream of Roosevelt Dam during periods of drought. A relatively small amount of surface water has been diverted from Pinal Creek for operations at the Miami Mine in the Salt River Basin. Larger volumes of surface water, often more than 5,000 AFA have been transferred from the Salt River Basin via the Black River to the Morenci Mine in the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area pursuant to water exchange agreements described below.

The location of surface water resources are shown on surface water condition maps and maps showing perennial and intermittent streams and major springs for each basin. Data on streamflow, flood ALERT equipment, reservoirs, stockponds and springs are listed in tables in the Water Resource Characteristics sections for each basin.

Legal Availability

Ongoing water rights adjudications, court decrees, water exchange agreements, settlements and state statutes all affect the use of surface water supplies in the planning area and are discussed below. In addition, environmental laws, instream flow rights and environmental protection designations assign surface water supplies to environmental purposes. These are discussed further in Section 5.0.4 and include the Endangered Species Act and associated habitat conservation plans, and the designation of waterways as preserves, wild and scenic rivers and unique waters.

In Arizona rights to surface water are subject to the doctrine of prior appropriation, which is based on the tenet “first in time, first in right”. This means that the person who first put the water to a beneficial use acquires a right that is superior to all other surface water rights with a later priority date. Under the Public Water Code, beneficial use is the basis, measure and limit to the use of water. The surface water rights system is further discussed in a later sub-section.

Arizona has two general stream adjudications in progress to determine the nature, extent and priority of water rights across the entire Gila River and Little Colorado River systems. The adjudications will recognize existing water right settlements and decrees (see discussion below) and adjudicate all remaining water rights claims in the river systems.  Pertinent to the Central Highlands Planning Area, the Gila River Adjudication is being conducted in the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County. The Gila Adjudication was initiated by petitions filed by several parties in the 1970’s, including Salt River Project, Phelps Dodge Corporation and the Buckeye Irrigation Company. The petitions were consolidated in 1981 into a single proceeding. The Gila Adjudication includes seven adjudication watersheds - Upper Salt, San Pedro, Agua Fria, Upper Gila, Lower Gila, Verde, and Upper Santa Cruz. The entire Upper Salt, Agua Fria and almost all of the Verde adjudication watersheds and part of the Lower Gila adjudication watershed are within the planning area boundaries (see Figure 5.0-17).  These watersheds do not coincide with the 6-digit HUC watersheds discussed previously and shown in Figure 5.0-5. The entire Gila Adjudication includes over 24,000 parties.

Several court determinations currently affect surface water supply availability in the planning area including the Verde Ditch, Kent and Benson-Allison decrees. The Verde Ditch extends approximately 17 miles along the Verde River from north of I-17 to south of Camp Verde. The Verde Ditch Decree (1909) proportionately divided ownership and maintenance responsibilities of the Verde Ditch without reference to a priority date or use. It also stipulates that water in the lower portion of the ditch be one third of the flow of the upper portion to ensure adequate supplies for all ditch owners.  The Kent Decree (1910) determined that almost 240,000 irrigable acres in the Salt River Valley had a right to water diverted from the Salt and Verde rivers and included certain tribal provisions, but did not establish rights along the Verde River. Determination of Verde River water rights has been included in the Gila Adjudication proceedings. The Benson-Allison Decree (1917) concerns lands in the Phoenix AMA that are entitled to divert water from the Salt, Agua Fria and Gila rivers.

Salt River

Salt River. The entire Upper Salt, Agua Fria and almost all of the Verde adjudication watershed and part of the Lower Gila adjudication watershed are within the planning area boundary.

Certain legal agreements and settlements that operate within the Central Highlands Planning Area allow for the movement of surface water between groundwater basins and planning areas. As previously mentioned, surface water stored in the Salt and Verde reservoirs are primarily allocated for use outside of the planning area.  In addition, surface water from the Black River in the Salt River Basin is diverted for use in the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area. Pursuant to complex exchange agreements with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, SRP and the Central Arizona Project, Freeport McMoRan (previously Phelps Dodge) diverts surface water from the Black River for use at the Morenci Mine. The Freeport McMoRan surface water diversions are located at the Black River Pump Station and conveyed over the Natanes Plateau and into Willow Creek.  In 2005, approximately 5,372 acre-feet were diverted from the Black River for this purpose.  In 2007, this volume was only 271 acre-feet.

To compensate downstream water users for diversions from the Black River, Phelps Dodge historically diverted water into the Central Highlands Planning Area from two locations in the Little Colorado River Planning Area; Show Low Lake and Blue Ridge Reservoir (now C.C. Cragin Reservoir).  Water from Show Low Lake, located five miles south of the Town of Show Low, was transferred to Forestdale Creek, a tributary to the Salt River.  This transfer ceased in 2005 with Phelps Dodge’s decision to permanently abandon its Show Low Lake water rights, and transfer its property interests in Show Low Lake and dam to the City of Show Low. The Salt River Basin water demand table takes into account both the water removed from and replaced into the Salt River Basin.

Stream on Fort Apache Reservation

Tributary to the Black River on the Fort Apache Reservation (White Mountain Apache).  A tribal water rights claim that affects water supply availability in the planning area is the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act.

C.C. Cragin Reservoir, located approximately 25 miles north of Payson, was acquired by SRP from Phelps Dodge Corporation in February 2005 as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Act.  The reservoir satisfies obligations to the Gila River Indian Community, and will be used to supplement SRP’s water supply and to assist in improving the water supply situation in northern Gila County in accordance with the Act (SRP, 2007b).  The Town of Payson has a long-term agreement with SRP to utilize a portion of the water stored at C.C. Cragin Reservoir as a water supply for the town.  It proposes to construct a $30 - $40 million pipeline and treatment plant to transport and deliver 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to the community. Another 500 acre-feet is dedicated to other northern Gila County communities. Water diverted from C.C. Cragin Reservoir that passes through the Verde River Basin (via East Verde River) and is not used in the basin, is not reflected in the surface water use estimates and water demand table for the Verde River Basin.

In addition to the Arizona Water Settlement Act, a tribal water rights claim that affects water supply availability in the planning area is the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act (Act). The Act was introduced in 2009 to resolve the tribe’s water claims and provide a reliable drinking water supply. If adopted as introduced, it would allocate an annual water right of 52,000 AFA to the tribe through a combination of surface water and CAP water. It would also authorize funding for a needed drinking water project, the Miner Flat Project. The project consists of a small dam, reservoir and pipeline, estimated to cost approximately $128 million.

Surface water supply availability may also be affected by state statute. Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S. 45-555) allows the transportation of groundwater pumped from the Big Chino Sub-basin into the Prescott AMA.  There are concerns that increased groundwater withdrawals in this sub-basin may contribute to reduced flows in the headwaters of the Verde River and affect availability of surface water. The relative contribution of the proposed pumping to Verde River flow is the matter of considerable debate (see Groundwater section below).

Surface Water Right System

In addition to rights to surface water that exist through decrees, settlements, agreements and statutes, there are many existing uses whose rights have not been adjudicated. As described in detail in Appendix C, the legal framework and process under which surface water right applications and claims are administered and determined is complex.  Each type of surface water right filing is assigned a unique number as explained in Appendix C and shown in Table 5.0-8. All parties who use water or claim to have a water right within the river system are required to file a statement of claimant or SOC (39) in the adjudication, or risk loss of their right.  This includes reserved water rights for public lands and Indian reservations, of which only some have been quantified or prioritized. Other surface water right filings are discussed below.

A Certificate of Water Right (CWR) may be issued if the terms of the permit to appropriate water (3R, 4A or 33, and in certain cases 38) are met.  CWRs retain the original permit application number.  Statements of claim of right to use public waters (36) have also been filed, but their filing does not in itself create a water right. Surface water rights can also be determined through judicial action in state or federal court in which the court process establishes or confirms the validity of the rights and claims and ranks them according to priority.  Court decreed rights are considered the most certain surface water right.

Click to view Figure 5.0-17

Table 5.0-8 summarizes the number of surface water right and adjudication filings in the planning area. The methodology used to query the Department’s surface water right and SOC registries is described in Appendix C.  Of the 39,698 filings that specify surface water diversion points and places of use in the planning area, 3,184 CWRs have been issued to date. Figure 5.0-17 shows the location of surface water diversion points listed in the Department’s surface water rights registry. The numerous points reflect the large number of stockponds and reservoirs that have been constructed in the planning area as well as diversions from streams and springs. Locations of registered wells, many of which are referenced as the basis of claim in SOCs are also shown in Figure 5.0-17.

Results from the Department’s investigation of surface water right and adjudication filings are presented in Hydrographic Survey Reports (HSRs). Within the Central Highlands Planning Area, a preliminary HSR has been published for the Upper Salt River Watershed (ADWR, 1992).

The location of surface water resources are shown on surface water condition maps and maps showing perennial and intermittent streams and major springs for each basin, and in basin tables that contain data on streamflow, flood ALERT equipment, reservoirs, stockponds and springs in the Water Resource Characteristics sections for each basin.

 

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