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Colorado River water rights sale by private company might set a dangerous precedent: 'We've opened Pandora's box'

"If I could buy Colorado River water rights, that's more valuable than owning oil in this country at this stage."

"If I could buy Colorado River water rights, that's more valuable than owning oil in this country at this stage."

Photo Credit: iStock

A private company supported by global investors bought nearly 500 acres of land in a tiny Arizona town and sold its water rights to a Phoenix suburb for a $14 million profit. 

The Guardian reported this is sparking one of the largest battles over the Colorado River's water and represents an unprecedented water transfer facilitated by exploiting water policies.

What's happening?

Greenstone Resource Partners LLC bought agricultural land in Cibola, Arizona (population around 200), and sold the water rights to suburban Queen Creek, known for lush golf courses and resort pools. Water previously used to irrigate Cibola farms now flows through a canal to provide water to master-planned communities over 200 miles away.

The Guardian has investigated this disturbing water transfer, how states negotiate dwindling water supplies, and how water rights can be transferred without proper environmental review. 

Greenstone bought farmland about a decade ago, but it was actually part of an investment plan to divert water from the area for profit.

Why are water rights important?

Although this water transfer is shocking, it may become increasingly common as extreme weather drives water scarcity and leaves cities, suburbs, and farms dry and desperate. 

"I'm afraid we've opened Pandora's box," Holly Irwin, a local county supervisor, said about the Greenstone deal, per the Guardian.

Companies like Greenstone, tied to real estate developers and big banks, now have a precedent to falsely pose as farms and take water away from people living on the land.

As affluent, developing suburbs sprawl and demand tremendous resources, small towns with struggling economies come to their rescue — although sometimes unwittingly.

An Arizona State University water law professor, Rhett Larson, said in the Guardian report: "With ongoing shortages on the river, driven by climate change, Colorado River water is going to become very valuable. Anyone who understands this dynamic thinks, 'Well, if I could buy Colorado River water rights, that's more valuable than owning oil in this country at this stage.'"

What's being done about unjust water transfers?

Cibola is fighting back and advocating for its water rights by gathering together and discussing its concerns.

State governments are working together to ensure the fair distribution of the Colorado River, keeping it sustainable for millions of people who depend upon it. States, including Arizona, are also closing down coal power plants, which could help allocate resources and manage water more effectively. 

Meanwhile, news of under-the-table water rights deals, including this one and others across the American West, are making people more aware of how water is bought and sold as our planet's most valuable commodity. 

Staying informed about what's happening in your community and educating yourself about companies' destructive environmental practices can significantly protect your rights and hold corporations accountable for their actions.

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