Arizona water dispute nears a boil

By Hannah Korp | The Wall Street Journal

Like many retirees who have flocked to Sierra Vista in recent years, Judy Sturgeon enjoys the cool temperatures afforded by the southern Arizona city’s high elevation, views of the Huachuca Mountains and regular appearances by migrating cuckoos and warblers on the banks of the San Pedro River.

But Ms. Sturgeon worries there won’t be enough water to go around if retirees keep coming. That is why she doesn’t want the company that owns her residential community to proceed with a plan to build 7,000 homes for an expected influx of retirees who would fill most of the available development land in the city of about 45,000.

“Hopefully it won’t be in my lifetime,” says Ms. Sturgeon, 73 years old.

The development, planned by Los Angeles real-estate company Castle & Cooke Inc., is at the center of a fight over water rights that pits the federal government against Arizona’s water authority. It is one of thousands of conflicts across the West, where states generally issue water rights on a first-come, first-served basis. As demand grows, states eager for development that could generate economic growth are increasingly granting privileges to newcomers, a move that existing water users say impinges on their rights.

Last year, the Arizona Department of Water Resources approved Castle & Cooke’s plan to pump roughly 3,000 acre-feet of water a year from state land near the San Pedro—the last big, free-flowing river in the Southwest—over the next century to service its new residents. (One acre-foot is generally taken to represent annual water usage of a suburban household.)

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February 2013