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Judge allows farm to transfer its Colorado River water supply to Queen Creek

Arizona commits to drought plan for Colorado River
Posted at 6:40 PM, Apr 20, 2023

CIBOLA, AZ — The wilting alfalfa is a sign of defeat for La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin, who lives just miles away from GSC farm in Cibola.

“I don't think any water should be transferred off of the Colorado River,” Irwin told ABC15 Investigators while at the farm in the rural Arizona community southwest of Quartzsite.

For four years, Irwin and other western Arizona county officials have tried to prevent the farm’s corporate owner, Greenstone Acquisitions, from selling most of the farm’s Colorado River water rights to the town of Queen Creek

This comes as the megadrought pits rural landowners against urban politicians to battle for every drop of the endangered Colorado River. Between the two are companies profiting by purchasing land to sell the water rights tied to the property.

“We have a right to exist; we have a right for development,” Irwin said.

La Paz, Mohave, and Yuma counties filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation alleging federal officials who had greenlighted the water transfer request did not follow all the federal requirements and environmental checks.

This month a federal judge in Phoenix denied a request for a preliminary injunction. GSC Farm will be able to begin water transfers at any time. The company intends to divert about 2,083 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River, into the Central Arizona Project canal, to Queen Creek nearly 200 miles away.

“We're hopeful that, as soon as May or June, we'll have that water start coming into the town,” said Paul Gardner, Queen Creek’s utility director.

Queen Creek has 40,000 water account holders, totaling approximately 125,000 customers. The extra water supply could provide each of those people with about 15 gallons of water each day in perpetuity.

“It doesn't seem like much, but over 100 years, it will save 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater that we would have pumped in that 100-year timeframe,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the infusion of Colorado River water helps ensure a stable water supply for generations, and in conjunction with smart water management, the town can continue to add developments.

“There are very real fears that the power of the cities is such that they're going to be able to go in and make offers that farmers can't refuse all along the Colorado River to transfer those water rights,” said Rhett Larson, an Arizona State University professor of water law.

Greenstone is one of several corporations and hedge funds buying lands in the Colorado River Basin with hopes of profiting from future water transfers to cities, housing builders, golf courses or other water users at risk of running dry.

Queen Creek is paying about $24 million for GSC’s water rights. It’s the first completed transaction of its kind in Arizona.

“Farmers may walk away with a pretty good check in their pocket, but a lot of the surrounding communities don't get the benefit of that check,” Larson said. Everybody from tractor repairmen to fertilizer salesman, to schoolteachers, to dry cleaners, didn't get any of that money.

Supervisor Irwin questions how many more fields will end up like GSC Farm in La Paz County, going fallow and abandoned just for the water to feed the growing metro areas.

“The first transfer won’t make a difference, but what about 20 of them down the road? What is it going to look like then?” Irwin said.

Queen Creek insists this is a good water policy and a unique opportunity. That’s because most of the agricultural areas with Colorado River water rights are part of larger water service districts, so individual farmers don’t have rights to sell.

“To say this is all going to come off the river is really disingenuous by the river communities because it just can't happen,” Gardner said. “There's just not that supply available.”

A lawyer representing Greenstone and GSC Farm declined to make a comment about the water transfer to ABC15.

The farm did make its argument in court filings, saying “the effects of the [Queen Creek] Water Transfer are simply too limited in size and location to result in any significant impacts on the environment,” and the farm warned against making decisions based on “improper speculation about the environmental impacts of possible, future transfers of unknown quantities of water from unknown locations.”

GSC Farm also stated in an amicus brief filed in federal court in February that the “town’s groundwater supplies are sufficient to support continued growth. Instead, Queen Creek is acquiring Colorado River water to diversify its water portfolio and decrease its reliance on groundwater. “

Contact ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com or 602-685-6362. You can also connect on Twitter and Facebook.