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Mohave County assessor targets farm wells

December 3, 2018

Farmers who’ve moved into Mohave County over the last few years to take advantage of 100-year-old water laws have been getting away cheap on their property taxes, but that’s about to change.

County Assessor Jeanne Kentch said it’s a “valuation challenge” because some of the wells they’ve drilled cost upward of $1 million, while they were being valued at one-fourth of that amount.

Kentch’s office will begin valuing wells that have been drilled on agricultural land and capable of pumping 2,000 gallons of water a minute.

In a Nov. 19 presentation to the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, Kentch said these industrial-type wells could each generate $13,000 to $14,000 a year in additional property taxes. By comparison, the average house using 245 gallons of water a day generates $1,109 in taxes a year.

“When we were first brought knowledge of those wells, it occurred to us that we really didn’t have a good valuation model in place to value these properties,” said Bret McKee, chief appraiser for the county. “We found them to be very large, very deep wells and the current cost system doesn’t address those very well.”

McKee said the Assessor’s Office canvassed 35 wells in 2017 with large filtration systems, turbines and diesel motors.

“There’s a lot of costs here, a lot of value that we simply didn’t have on the rolls,” he said.

Michael Baker International surveyed four Arizona well drillers on the cost of drilling five different wells that gave the county a much better calculation of their value. They cost $800,000 to $900,000, with half the value below ground and half above ground, McKee added.

Prior to 2014, there was very little farming in Mohave County, and most of the agricultural water was used for grazing, Kentch said.

Las Vegas developer Jim Rhodes tried to build housing subdivisions in Golden Valley, but the projects ultimately failed because he couldn’t show the 100-year water supply required by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

He transitioned to small-scale farming, submitting 85 well applications to ADWR in 2014, then 40 more. Other entities brought the total to about 150 well permits, Kentch said.

Many of the permits were sold to a hedge fund that invested in farming operations growing high water-demand crops such as alfalfa. The county added 92 industrial wells to its property tax rolls, and ADWR is still receiving permit applications, the county assessor said.

Kentch is worried about water sustainability. ADWR estimated annual water withdrawal of 32,000 acre-feet in May 2017, about four times the annual recharge, but the U.S. Geological Survey in February 2018 estimated annual withdrawal could exceed 100,000 acre-feet.

She said there’s much discussion on water conservation and recharge at the state level, but there are no real answers.

“We’re not against farming, by no means. We’re just against inefficient farming,” Kentch said.

The county has looked at various ways to protect its water supply such as an Active Management Area or Rural Management Area.

“We have been reticent to go into the AMA,” Supervisor Hildy Angius said at the meeting. “You know, be careful what you wish for, and who really ultimately has power.”

Angius said the possibility of a Rural Management Area was brought to the County Supervisors Association, and Rep. Gina Cobb. R-Kingman, is taking the helm on it.

“And so hopefully this year we can get some movement on that and I think we believe that will help us manage our own destiny.”

Supervisor Buster Johnson said he’s not sticking up for farmers, but it’s their land and they have the right to do whatever is legal.

“When you go to compare farming to 2,900 homes, it generates $3.5 million, according to the assessor at this time, about $700,000 is ours … it costs us money for all those houses,” he said. “Industry is where we make our money, so if we were to have 3,000 houses it would cost more money actually than it does now.”

Supervisor Ron Gould said he’s interested in what it takes to create a Rural Management Area and what it actually does for the county.

“Because the devil is always in the details, so we need to be watching out for the devil,” he said.

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