Water park in Pinal County moves ahead as farmers faces steep water cuts

Jeff Kronenfeld

A rendering of the PHX Surf water park in the city of Maricopa.(PHX Surf/AO)

Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Maricopa, AZ) As Pinal County farmers struggle to cope with the recently extended cut-off of Colorado River water, others in the region have responded to the historic drought more leisurely.

In the city of Maricopa, PHX Surf is constructing a water park featuring a lazy river, water slides, and a pair of surf lagoons covering 274,000-square feet.

The site will also include an entertainment venue, spa, hotel, retail space, bike pump track, and three restaurants. According to a PHX Surf entitlement package from May, the project will become a "stay and play" destination attracting visitors from throughout the state, country, and even farther.

The property is in the Maricopa Growth Area, with existing public infrastructure, including water and sewers.

PHX Surf did not respond to requests for comment about the park’s water usage and sourcing.

Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, stated that the company Global Water Resources (GWR) would likely provide groundwater to PHX Surf, as it does to the rest of the city.

GWR pumps water from the Maricopa Stanfield sub-basin aquifer, avoiding direct impacts by cuts to Colorado River water.

“Global is using a lot less groundwater than the Department of Water Resources authorizes them to use,” Porter said.

This water supply has allowed Maricopa to blossom since the city was incorporated in 2003.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the desert community’s population increased from 1,040 in 2000 to 62,720 in July 2021. Much of that growth has come from converting agricultural lands to residential areas, the latter of which Porter noted use significantly less water per acre.

However, just because a water supply is legally secure does not mean it could never dry up. In fact, the Pinal Active Management Area (AMA) plans to deplete its aquifers over the coming decades.

“The Department of Water Resources did a groundwater model for the Pinal AMA a couple of years ago and concluded that if all of the projected demand for the next 100 years occurs, the county will come up significantly short,” Porter said. “Probably all of the projected demands, as noted in 2019 or 2020, won't occur. Probably a lot of ag will go away. Water use will continue to get more efficient as it has been, but right now, of all of the active management areas, we have no good news for Pinal County.”

A rendering of the PHX Surf water park in the city of Maricopa.(PHX Surf/AO)

While the PHX Surf water park may be a day at the beach for Maricopa residents, the project is a wipeout for fifth-generation Arizona farmer Jace Miller.

"It's a little uncouth and the timing is off, to say the least," Miller said. "I have an issue with not just the construction of the water park, but the unregulated growth we're having. It's not sustainable. It's not intelligent. It's not smart."

Miller and his family run Triple M Farms, which primarily has acreage in Pinal County, including leased land in Eloy. They also provide farm services and custom harvesting for the Gila River Indian Community and other area farmers. In addition, they still have a little land in Maricopa County, where Miller's great-great-grandfather began farming in Arizona in 1919.

Triple M grows alfalfa, Bermuda grass, sedan grass, oats, cotton, and a little wheat and barley. Most of their crop goes to diaries and equestrians, with some shipped nationally and occasionally internationally.

Miller worries that growing urban areas will eventually siphon away so much water that his son won’t have the opportunity to continue the family tradition of farming.

"We're in an area that can only sustain so many people and so much water usage, but we've had this false sense of comfort that, 'Oh, no worries, every time we need more water, whether we're building or we're running low, we just take it from these farmers,’” Miller said. “If we continue with that premise, if every farmer in the world is going, ‘Screw this, I make more money selling my ground in development,’ well, then one day we're all going to starve.”

Porter acknowledged the bad optics of building a water park while nearby farms face cuts to their water supply but noted that farmers were tapping groundwater as well. She also pointed out that the agricultural industry has aggressively lobbied against a priority system for groundwater users in the past.

In addition, Porter noted that cities have more ability to conserve water during dry times. However, she did not endorse or support any particular water use, instead focusing on the need for the entire region to move toward more sustainable practices.

“This transition that we're in, in some ways, could be said to provide preferences to urban uses of water," Porter said. “I think that's very difficult for farmers to swallow, but again, I try to stay agnostic on water uses. I am not agnostic about supplies of water or sustainable management, but I don't know that it's clear that an alfalfa field is more important than a water park.”

An image showing areas of Pinal County impacted by land subsidence.(Kyl Center for Water Policy - Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU)

When too much groundwater is pumped too quickly, parts of aquifers can collapse, reducing their ability to hold water in a phenomenon called land subsidence. The Arizona Department of Water Resources found that large portions of Pinal County, including parts of the city of Maricopa, are experiencing subsidence.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

Tempe, AZ

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