Anyone looking for clarity is not going to find it in Arizona water law. But the fight over the right to water grass, trees and other landscaping on 950 acres of Gilbert farmland as it’s transformed into an urban hub near Williams Gateway Airport is a relatively clear-cut situation of private property rights being pitted against government regulation.
Roosevelt Water Conservation District associate general manager Shane Leonard has attacked a Gilbert ordinance that requires all new urban development to use reclaimed wastewater to nurture landscape plants as anticompetitive and anti-property rights.
“Gilbert does not like the idea that there could be additional providers within their service area,” he said in a Feb. 22 Tribune article by Beth Lucas. “I think it does come down to control.”
He’s right — it comes down to control for Gilbert. Control of a commodity that makes civilization possible, which is in comparatively short supply in southern Arizona. Control of whether it has enough available to maintain its assured water supply certification from the state, let alone enough for its residents to survive.
The RWCD is now contemplating litigation against Gilbert over the stalled Cooley Station project. As farmers, the Cooley family has for decades been irrigating this land with untreated groundwater supplied by the district. The district and the town draw water from the same aquifer: Gilbert for residential use, the RWCD for agriculture.
Given the natural resource in question here, we think it’s appropriate for local government to retain its role in watching its water supplies, which is why we’re relieved to hear of the death of a bill in the Legislature that would have allowed developers to choose where they get their water from, even if one source carries fewer use restrictions than the other. The RWCD, also a political subdivision of the state, inspired that bill.
Landowner Jeff Cooley says he would have to build a one-acre lake to use the town’s reclaimed water, so he’d rather use, and has the right to choose, the district’s irrigation canal adjacent to the Cooley Station area to water its parks and common areas. This would also allow the development to have lusher landscaping than Gilbert and most other municipalities generally permit.
The right to use one’s property is one of America’s bedrock values. But effective management of water resources, especially within a drought-stricken desert, is as much of a public safety and community survival issue as police, fire, and other services generally accepted to be within the sphere of government.
And government can hardly keep effective control of the water supply if it can’t regulate usage at even the most localized level, which is what letting Cooley Station use something other than the reclaimed water and xeriscaping that has become the standard for new development coming into the Valley would mean.
The RWCD does face the prospect of a diminished role in an urbanized south East Valley, But it will remain a major player as long as it holds water rights. We hope its leaders can drop their adversarial stance and collaborate with the town on preserving the drinking water supply.