The dry, sandy river that gives the valley its name has been pumped nearly to death. Two open-pit copper mines (with a third on the way), long-term drought and superheated residential development have irrevocably altered the valley's rural character and have--in just a little more than a decade--taxed the valley to the point where water officials say the aquifer is shrinking by about two feet per year.
This keeps Arturo Gabaldon, president of the Community Water Company of Green Valley, up at night. He repeats a common warning at every public meeting at which he speaks: "Our community simply cannot exist in the long-term without a sustainable supply of water beyond 100 years."
For Gabaldon, the answer to the valley's water woes is the Central Arizona Project--the same answer Arizona has been counting on for its survival for a few generations. The audacious CAP canal, the largest reclamation project ever attempted in the United States, reached its current terminus near Pima Mine Road in the 1990s. The canal is some 336 miles long, stretching across the desert from Lake Havasu City and is capable of delivering about 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Arizona every year.
Over the years, forward-looking officials with the CWC have purchased allocations of CAP water equal to about 3,000 acre-feet per year--roughly what the utility delivers to its members annually. But there are no federal dollars left to extend the canal south, so there's no way to bring that water into the valley. So the unremitting pumping of ground water continues.
"It was not designed to go any farther than that," says CAP spokesman Bob Barrett. "If you have a water allocation, and you want to use it, you have to find a way to stick your straw into our system, because we are no longer building."
Enter Augusta Resource Corporation, carrying a big straw.
The Canadian mining firm has incensed residents from Tucson to Nogales with its plans to start an open-pit copper mine in the Rosemont Valley in the Santa Rita Mountains, using mostly public lands that will almost assuredly be granted to them, despite opposition from the Pima County Board of Supervisors, under the auspices of very industry-friendly federal mining laws.
Along the way, company officials have been talking about being a different kind of mining company, one that takes the long view, one that understands the finite nature of resources. A few months of off-the-radar negotiations between the CWC and Augusta resulted in the surprise announcement recently that Augusta had agreed to pay between $9 and $15 million to build a 7-inch pipeline from Pima Mine Road to an as-yet-undecided location near Sahuarita so that CAP water could finally flow into the valley. The plan is to continue pumping ground water and replace, or "recharge," the aquifer with CAP water.
Many people found this to be a surprising turn of events. Why would Augusta do this? The pat answer from the company is that they're doing what's best for the community--corporate citizenship and all that. But mine opponents are suspicious, saying that this is merely a ploy to buy positive public opinion toward the mine.
The reality is, however, that Augusta doesn't really need positive public opinion. They are not required to replace the estimated 100,000 acre-feet of ground water they're expected to pump out of the aquifer during the next 15 years, nor are they required to even think about the long-term health of the water supply.
The company has purchased a plot of land on the northeast edge of Sahuarita, on which they plan to dig wells and pump groundwater--mostly uphill to the mine site. The permit that allows them to do this--a Mineral Extraction and Metallurgical Processing Groundwater Withdrawal Permit--means they'll get the water for sure, as long as they're using the water for mining.
Augusta has made much of its efforts to purchase excess CAP water and deposit it into a recharge facility near Marana--still within the larger Tucson-area aquifer, but far from where the mine plans to pump groundwater. The company says this is proof of its long-view policies. Excess CAP water is available to industry and others for purchase as long as those who hold the original allocations aren't using all of their water. One of the more egregious uses of excess CAP water, depending on how you feel about paddle boats and triathlons, was the creation of Tempe Town Lake, now a Colorado River-filled tourist attraction where once there was only a dry rocky river bed.
The same thing could happen in the Santa Cruz Valley. The CWC has plans to talk to federal overseers about possibly recharging CAP water directly into the Santa Cruz, giving the river a perennial flow again.
Based on its plans to continue purchasing excess CAP water, Augusta has said that it will eventually replace 105 percent of the water it takes out of the ground, and with the CWC agreement, that water can now be replaced in the Santa Cruz sub-basin, not in Marana.
This is a theoretical plan, though, and one that may be nothing more than pipe dream, so to speak.
According to CAP spokesman Barrett, recent study models suggest that excess water won't be available for sale to companies like Augusta in the future. Best-case scenarios, he said, put a stop to excess CAP water sales in the next 15 to 20 years--roughly the projected life of the Rosemont mine. But worst-case scenarios, arrived at by studying tree-ring evidence of the worst sustained droughts in Arizona, would have excess water sales cut off within the next five years--around the time the Rosemont Mine will be ramping up to full production.
If that happens, it may not matter, at least not to Augusta, that there's a CAP pipeline bringing in the CWC's 3,000 acre-feet per year allocation. Augusta plans to pump about 7,000 acre-feet a year out of the ground. There's a gulf there, and it's one that may take more than a pipeline to bridge if the worst comes to pass.