PHOENIX — One of Arizona’s fastest growing communities has designs on Colorado River water to keep up with its population growth.
The town of Queen Creek, about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, is in a king-sized fight as it seeks to take over water rights held by a La Paz County farm.
Queen Creek’s population in 2010 was about 26,000 according to U.S. Census data. The town now estimates the population is 51,800. Its water service area is twice the size of the town’s boundaries, supplying an estimated population of 90,000.
The town’s officials project that once Queen Creek is fully built out, it will be home to about 170,000 people, with a water system serving approximately 238,000.
A private company wants to sell its annual entitlement of more than 2,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to Queen Creek for a one-time payment of $21 million.
The town and the company GSC Farm LLC have asked regulators at the state Department of Water Resources to endorse the water transfer.
The agency is holding a series of four meetings to hear comments on the proposal.
At the first meeting in Phoenix, the proposal was strongly opposed by local officials and state legislators from counties along the river who say they fear the deal would harm their farming economies and open the door for more water to be traded away to Arizona’s thirsty cities.
The proposed water deal between GSC Farm and Queen Creek would leave 485 acres of farmland permanently dry near the Colorado River.
“They’re purchasing properties to try to get those waters transferred. So they’re making money off of us. They’re making money off of those communities that need that water,” state Rep. Regina Cobb said. “As soon as you start moving that water out of those communities, guess what’s going to happen. They’re going to dry up.”
Cobb’s district includes La Paz County, home to the small farming community of Cibola, where the company would stop irrigating its farmland and let the water go to Queen Creek.
Cobb disagreed with representatives of the company and the town who said the proposal would bring economic benefits and more tax revenues to the rural area and the state as a whole.
If the deal goes through, she said, it would be a first and set a precedent for other investors and companies to buy farmland along the river to sell off the water.
Cobb said she welcomes companies investing in the area, but not if their purpose is “solely to transfer water away from rural Arizona.”
Other officials from Mohave and Yuma counties, whose areas depend on diverted river water, raised similar objections. They argued that Queen Creek has other alternative water sources it could consider and shouldn’t siphon away a resource that the rural community depends on.
Grady Gammage Jr., an attorney for GSC Farm, said during the meeting that the water transfer “is in the best interests of all of Arizona.”
GSC’s right was established by transfers dating to the 1950s, according to Gammage.
For now, the company is leasing out the land, and the water is flowing to fields of cotton and alfalfa.
Queen Creek, founded in 1989, gets a relatively small allocation of Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project Canal.
Town officials said buying water rights is part of their long-term strategy.
The deal would bring enough water to supply approximately 5,500 homes, Gardner said. The costs for the town, on top of the $21 million payment, would include about $350,000 per year to deliver the water through the CAP Canal.