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Surprise works to protect groundwater

City in good shape with supplies

Posted 11/21/22

It’s no secret that drought issues have been wreaking havoc with Arizona’s water system.

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Subscriber Exclusive

Surprise works to protect groundwater

City in good shape with supplies


It’s no secret that drought issues have been wreaking havoc with Arizona’s water system.

But Kathy Ferris, the former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told the Surprise City Council on Nov. 15 that it should get used to this problem.

“It may not be a drought,” Ferris told the council. “It may be the way it’s going to be forever.”

Arizona is already under a Tier 1 designation on the Colorado River, which means less water to Arizona cities and towns. A Tier 2A shortage will go into effect Jan. 1, bringing even more reductions.

So, Ferris, who is now a senior research fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU’s Morrison Institute, is making sure municipalities are keeping an eye on their groundwater supplies.

“This is an issue that needs to be addressed if we want to have a sustainable water supply for everybody in the future,” Ferris said.

Ferris and Surprise Water Resources Director Michael Boule detailed what Surprise is doing to meet its residents’ needs well into the future.

“Everybody who is using water should contribute to the solution, not just the problem,” Ferris said.

Boule said Surprise has done its best by assuring water supplies to meet demand for the next 10 years of growth for 100 years

The city received its updated designation in March, a process Boule said took the city three years to complete.

A Designation of Assured Water Supply from the state goes back to the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which forced conservation from agricultural, industrial and municipal uses of water, and created the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

When it was passed, it was considered one of the toughest state legislation to control groundwater depletion.

It covers six so-called Active Management Areas across much of Arizona.

“The goal is to reduce reliance on groundwater,” Ferris said. “Groundwater is a finite resource. Once it is pumped, for the most part it’s gone. It’s not replenished by snow or rain.”

Prior to 1980, state and local officials were mining groundwater.

“We were doing it at such an alarming rate, there was a concern that we would run out,” Ferris said.

The goal for municipalities is a concept called “safe yield,” Ferris said.

Safe yield is an attempt to reach a balance between the amount of groundwater pumped annually and the amount of groundwater replenished annually over the long term.

“If we keep allowing growth on groundwater, we’ll never get there,” Ferris said.

The assured water supply requirement is part of the 1980 act.

The act requires anybody who sells subdivided land to show to the ADWR that it has a 100-year assured water supply to meet the uses on that land.

“And if you can’t, then you may not get permission to sell those lots,” Ferris said. “It’s an important provision that helps ensure consumer protection and that we do not expand beyond the water that we have available.”

Designation vs. certificates

The state issues designations of assured water supplies as well as certificates of assured water supplies.

Surprise only serves about one-third of the city’s residences and businesses. EPCOR serves a similar amount of customers while the rest is served by a handful of private companies

The city has a designation of assured water supply, while EPCOR doesn’t. Instead, EPCOR has a certificate.

Water providers like the city of Surprise apply for designation of assured water supply, while subdivisions go for certificates.

Designations are reviewed every 15 years, but certificates do not have a renewal requirement and are based on a fixed number of platted lots.

For areas regulated in an AMA, entities have to meet seven criteria to receive a designation or certificate for an assured water supply. They include the availability of physical water plus a conservation plan.

Boule said the city has projected 10-year demands for the next 100 years. It has determined the need for 24,450 acre feet of water by 2032 with 6% to 8% growth annually.

Of that demand, 10,249 acre feet would come from Central Arizona Project water, while the remainder would be reclaimed water.

So far in 2022, the estimated use will be around 9,143 acre feet, a slight increase from 2021.

Boule said the city has been banking more groundwater than it’s been using, so much so that it has 16 years of groundwater banked in storage credits.

The Arizona Legislature created the Central Arizona Groundwater Replacement District, an extension of the Central Arizona Project, in 1993, to replenish groundwater pumped by members.

The idea is that GRD will go out into the market, buy water supplies and then use that water to replenish the groundwater pumped by member subdivisions.

But there is a lot of concern in the industry that it’s not a sustainable practice.

Fortunately in Surprise, the issue hasn’t mattered yet. Surprise is a member of CAGRD but hasn’t had to rely on the district to replenish its water.

“As we sit here today we’re able to supply our own replenishment as a utility provider,” Boule said.

A homeowner who buys into a subdivision served by the CAGRD will pay more in property taxes to pay for the recharge, Ferris confirmed to Mayor Skip Hall.

“A lot of times homeowners don’t even know they’re in the district,” Ferris said. “And then they get a property tax bill, and they say, ‘What is that? What am I being charged for?’”

Ferris called it a “disconnect” between water use and that property tax.

Law loopholes

There are loopholes to the law, however, that leave many parts of Arizona unregulated at all.

Ferris said that’s become an issue in the Kingman area, where agriculture is booming, but Mohave County leaders are worried that it’s not sustainable for the area.

“There’s a lot of the state that’s unregulated,” Ferris told the council.

An assured water supply is required for subdivisions that have six lots or more.

Apartment buildings are excluded, as well as the trend for build-to-rent homes.

The build-to-rent homes, or BTR, have developers leasing homes for less than a year, which eliminates the requirement for an assured water supply.

Ferris said this is becoming a trend to circumvent the assured water supply requirement, especially in Pinal County.

However, with the city of Surprise’s water service, all multifamily residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural uses are all accounted for in the city’s assured water supply plans, Boule said.

“Those demands are modeled over our 10-year horizon to ensure that we have 100 years of water available for them,” Boule said.

Ferris said potential homebuyers should “think water first” before making the big purchase.

“When you buy a home, wouldn’t you want to say who’s my water provider and how am I going to get my water supply and is it a sustainable water supply?” Ferris said. “It really is remarkable in my mind that people would invest the kind of money they have in many of the homes up there without knowing if they had a secured water supply.

“In many respects it’s the fault of the landbuyer.”

Boule showed the council two examples of how the assured water designation works with two types of housing developments

In one example, a subdivision with 168 lots needed to apply for a certificate with an estimated demand of a little more than 61 acre feet of water annually.

But an apartment complex with 364 units was exempt from needing a certificate because it was on less than six lots, despite having an estimated demand of 118 acre feet of water annually.

“I think there needs to be some effort to take care of these loopholes before it’s too late,” Ferris said. “We’ve been wasting a lot of time the last 20 years.”

High water usage was part of the reason city officials weren’t interested in bringing the White Claw and Red Bull bottling facilities that Glendale opened last year just south of Surprise’s borders.

Surprise officials didn’t want to spend water resources on companies using a large amount of water, partly because they don’t have to recharge the water they use.

“That’s one of the big holes in the Groundwater Management Act, the ability to achieve safe yield,” Ferris said.

Councilman Chris Judd asked if the city could regulate water usage of if a private company brings in a big bottler to its service area.

“The frustrating part of that is we tell our residents to water your yard less, to take shorter showers, sing shorter songs I’ve heard people say, but the amount of savings that would result in doesn’t hold a candle to the daily use of some of the bigger bottling company uses,” Judd said.

Councilman Roland Winters asked Ferris about the possibility of desalinating water from the Sea of Cortez south of the state in Mexico.

However, Ferris said it’s not practical right now because the cost estimates to desalinate the water is $2,500 an acre foot, while CAP water costs about $200 an acre foot.

She said the state would have to build around 10 desalination plants to make up for Colorado River water that is currently used.

“It’s expensive and it’s hard to do,” Ferris said. “There are issues with it, but it’s not a silver bullet.”

Jason Stone can be reached at Visit