On a sunny morning in southern Arizona this spring, members of the Arizona Water Defenders gathered in a park in the small town of Douglas to answer residents’ questions about water – and to collect signatures for a citizen vote initiative that, for the first time, regulate the region’s aquifer.
The crowd that came was small but diverse. An hour into the community meeting, an artist arrived with a large, colorful map of the geology of the area which he was happy to show the Water Defenders. A retired educator and her adult son walked over and offered to go door-to-door in their neighborhood to support the cause. Two students from the local community college curled up on their longboards, and a man on a personal mission – handing out flyers he had written about the value of God’s love – also stopped to listen. All signed in support of the initiative.
The Arizona Water Defenders, a grassroots group, was formed in March 2021 by residents of southeastern Arizona who were concerned about local wells drying up and ground cracking and subsiding more and more visible. There has been agricultural pumping in the area since the 1940s, but in recent years, as major dairy and nut producers have purchased land in the area and drilled new deep wells, the drawdown of the water table groundwater has become more noticeable and disturbing. After contacting the Arizona Department of Water Resources and reading the state’s groundwater management law, water advocates began the process of initiating a ballot measure that would create zones Active Management Areas (AMAs)—geographic designations in which the most stringent state groundwater regulations apply—for the Willcox and Douglas Basins, the two watersheds in southeastern Arizona. In May, the Cochise County Board of Elections approved the Willcox Basin ballot initiative; the Water Defenders will submit the signatures they collected for the Douglas Basin on July 6.
If voters approve the Willcox and Douglas AMAs in November, the new management areas will be the first in the state to be created by citizen petition. While there are other examples of collaborative groundwater management in the West – voluntary well use reductions in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, for example, as well as the Collaborative Action Program on water from California’s San Joaquin Valley – most are from state mandates. There have been other groundwater-related ballot initiatives, including proposed groundwater export bans in California’s Siskiyou and San Luis Obispo counties, but these have largely failed.
If the Water Defenders ballot initiatives are successful, they will show that local, democratic approaches to regulating the West’s increasingly scarce water resources are possible.
Together, the 1,910 square mile Willcox Basin and the 750 square mile Douglas Basin form the Sulfur Springs Valley, which is located in Cochise County, Arizona except for a small fringe. After the county relaxed its farm permit regulations in 2012, Riverview LLP, a Minnesota-based dairy, began buying land on the east side of the valley. The dairy has caused local concern and some animosity because its financial resources have allowed it to drill unusually deep wells, which many believe has significantly affected the water table. High Country News reported in August 2021 that since 2015 the company has drilled approximately 80 wells in the Willcox Basin and six more in the Douglas Basin. Most of them are at least 1,000 feet deep.
Legally, there is no limit to how deep Riverview and the other agribusinesses that have recently purchased land in the valley can dig wells, a fact that points to a paradox at the heart of the Water Act. underground in Arizona. The state groundwater management law went into effect in 1981, after the federal government threatened to withhold Arizona’s share of Colorado River water until the state limited its excessive use of groundwater. The law created four active management zones for areas where aquifers were under the greatest pressure. These management areas are home to 80% of the state’s population and account for 70% of its water use. Yet, in square kilometers, they represent only 13% of Arizona’s total land area.
Within these regulated regions, Arizona’s groundwater law is “one of the most comprehensive groundwater codes in the country,” writes historian Thomas Sheridan in Arizona: a story. According to Susanna Eden of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, each management area is required to produce a conservation plan every 10 years, and there are rules regarding the volume of water that groundwater users can pump.
But in areas not regulated by an AMA – including the Douglas and Willcox basins – there is no monitoring of groundwater use. That’s what the Water Defenders hope to change in November. (The Douglas Basin is designated as a no irrigation expansion zone, but it does not regulate the amount of water that can be used; it only prohibits irrigation of new land.)
In the summer of 2021, the Water Defenders – which Ash Dahlke, the group’s president, described as a “pretty rambling group” that includes “a lot of teachers and librarians” – began the process of collecting signatures. The support of 10% of registrants in the basin is necessary to put the creation of an AMA on the ballot box.
“People agree we need something,” said Bekah Wilce, Treasurer of Water Defenders. Wilce is optimistic that the group’s “hard work on the ground to talk to people” will pay off. “People didn’t know it was possible,” she said, but “they understand its importance.”
If voters approve the AMA’s proposals in November, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources will have 30 days to visit the basins and set goals for the management area. The state also appoints advisory committees to represent basin users. The department and committees will then have two years to draft initial management plans for new SAs.
But not all residents agree with the proposal. Farmer Claire Owen said it was ‘too late’ for the new AMAs to be effective because the water table has already dropped too low. “They screwed up when they wrote the law in 1981,” he said. “Everyone should have had the same rules.”
Jim Graham, who grows pistachios and grapes in Cochise Groves, said he was concerned but cautiously optimistic about groundwater in the valley. He believes that an AMA is the “wrong tool”. …It’s like going to the toolbox when you need a hammer and coming back with a saw. Graham is also concerned about the possible economic impact of new regulations.
San Ysidro Farms’ Nathan Watkins doesn’t think the AMAs will lessen Riverview’s impact on the Basins, at least not in the way defenders hope they will. “The dairy completely changed the character of this valley because it bought out all the local farmers. We have lost our sense of community,” he said. Although he says he is unhappy with the 1,500 foot deep wells at Riverview, he thinks the water table would continue to drop “even if the family farmers were still there”.
The Arizona Water Defenders believe that intensive groundwater pumping by agribusiness must be curbed, Wilce said, to ensure long-term access to groundwater for small farmers and non-farm residents. She emphasizes that AMAs are designed to meet the needs of communities and be shaped by them. “We need as many groundwater users as possible to be part of the process and have their voices heard in the development of our new AMAs.”
Caroline Tracey is HCN climate justice researcher, reporting from Tucson, Arizona. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to editor policy.