Rural Voters Approve New Groundwater Regulation
November 9, 2022
Residents of the Sulphur Springs Valley made history yesterday by voting in favor of designating the Douglas Groundwater Basin as an Active Management Area (AMA). Currently there are five AMAs resulting from the enactment of the Groundwater Management Act of 1980, which gives the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) responsibility for administering groundwater regulation. In addition to prohibiting new irrigation, AMAs require farmers, municipalities, and industrial operations to conserve groundwater. The Douglas Basin is the first "subsequent" AMA to be created.
"This is a great day for the future of our communities and our economy in the Douglas Basin," said Ash Dahlke, AWD chair. "Active management of our groundwater will help us create a more stable water supply that we all can count on for the long term."
The new AMA is the result of a citizens initiative launched last summer by the Arizona Water Defenders PAC (AWD), an all-volunteer local grassroots organization. The Arizona State Constitution allows citizens to enact laws through the citizens initiative process, and the Groundwater Management Act specifies that designation of an AMA can be placed on the ballot if 10% of the registered voters residing within the boundaries of the proposed AMA petition the government. AWD submitted more than enough signatures in July to place the Douglas Basin AMA on the ballot.
Only local voters residing within the boundaries of the Douglas Basin, which runs roughly from north of Elfrida to the border with Mexico, were allowed to vote on the measure. The unofficial vote count released late last night showed the measure passing with 52% "yes" and 48% "no" votes. Only provisional ballots and early ballots dropped off at vote centers have yet to be counted.
"This is a great win for the Douglas Basin and the whole state of Arizona," said Kathleen Ferris, one of the architects of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and one of the first directors of ADWR. "It shows that grassroots efforts can succeed where government inaction has failed. Congratulations to voters who recognized the need to put a stop to the over-expansion of industrial agriculture and preserve a supply of groundwater for the future. Kudos to the Arizona Water Defenders who, against all odds, led the effort to get these propositions on the ballot."
A ballot measure to designate the Willcox Groundwater Basin, north of the Douglas Basin, did not pass.
Much of the Douglas Groundwater Basin was already included in an Irrigation Non-Expansion Area (INA) created under the Groundwater Management Act in 1980. The INA prohibits new irrigation but does not limit the amount of groundwater that farmers can pump out of the basin. Passage of the ballot measure to designate the Douglas Basin as an AMA creates additional conservation measures, such as requiring farms irrigating with non-exempt wells pumping more than 35 gallons a minute to put in place conservation methods or best management practices. Well spacing regulations will also go into effect.
ADWR will propose a groundwater management goal and plan for the Douglas Basin and must then hold public hearings and take public comment before finalizing the goal and plan. The governor will appoint a five-member Groundwater Users Advisory Council (GUAC) to provide advice and recommendations to ADWR. GUAC meetings are open to the public.
"While we wish that the risks to our groundwater had never brought us to this point, we're proud to have joined our neighbors in doing what we need to in order to protect our lives and livelihoods," Rebekah Wilce, AWD's treasurer, said. "We look forward to participating in the public process of crafting a goal and plan so that they reflect our communities' needs."
ABC 15, Arizona reporting on AMA and groundwater in Cochise County. Report released on 5/25/22, Segment 1/3
ABC 15, Arizona reporting on AMA and groundwater in Cochise County. Report released on 5/26/22, Segment 2/3
AZ Water Defenders Submit Signatures to Bring Willcox Groundwater Basin AMA to Vote
Bisbee, AZ – The Arizona Water Defenders (AWD) made history today when they submitted a petition to Cochise County Elections for a November 2022 ballot measure to create an Active Management Area (AMA) for the Willcox Groundwater Basin. Signatures on the petition exceed the required ten percent of registered voters living within the Willcox Basin. The 1980 Groundwater Management Act allows residents of a community to initiate these groundwater protections themselves at the ballot. Until now, however, no other Arizona residents have successfully taken advantage of this legal opportunity.
“This groundbreaking grassroots effort to create a new AMA – to control this loss of groundwater by putting a proposition on the ballot – will allow voters in the Willcox Basin to decide whether to protect their common groundwater supplies,” says Kathleen Ferris, one of the architects of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and one of the first directors of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).
“Rapid expansion of new and ever deeper wells has caused groundwater levels in the Willcox Basin to drop and long existing wells to go dry. This measure is allowed by the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, and in the threatened Willcox Basin, the time to act has arrived,”
Arizona has five AMAs in other parts of the state, but there are no safeguards in the Willcox Basin to prevent overpumping of groundwater by the high-capacity pumps typically used in agricultural operations. More than 90 percent of groundwater extracted from the basin is for agricultural use, according to ADWR.
Overpumping is causing land subsidence at the highest rate in the state, according to ADWR, leading to earth fissures opening across roadways. National and international media have reported on the dramatic drop in the basin’s water levels and the hardships caused in the
community, but ADWR has repeatedly declined to use the Groundwater Management Act to create new AMAs either in the Willcox Basin or elsewhere.
Cheryl Knott, who coordinated AWD’s signature gathering for the Willcox Basin, says that residents’ lives are being made more difficult every day as groundwater levels continue to drop. “People want the overpumping of our groundwater to stop,” Knott says. “Voters living in Sunizona, Sunsites, Cochise, Dragoon, Willcox, and the surrounding area have all signed the petition.”
Ashley Dahlke, AWD Chair, says, “It’s become increasingly clear how crucial this first step in protecting our groundwater is. We’re excited and energized to continue our work to get an AMA for the Douglas Basin on the November 2022 ballot as well.”
About the Arizona Water Defenders: The Arizona Water Defenders (arizonawaterdefenders.com) is a Sulphur Springs Valley community group that works to preserve groundwater for current and future residents. It is organized as a political action committee in order to circulate ballot measure petitions to create Active Management Areas in the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins. AWD is committed to continued engagement in order to maintain and rebuild our community’s ability to survive and thrive with a healthy
Arizona Water Defenders Submit Signatures to Put Douglas Groundwater Basin AMA to a Vote
July 6th, 2022
Bisbee, AZ – The Arizona Water Defenders (AWD) submitted a petition to Cochise County Elections today for a November 2022 ballot measure to create an Active Management Area (AMA) for the Douglas Groundwater Basin. The number of petition signatures submitted exceeds the required ten percent of registered voters living within the basin.
Voters in Sunizona, Elfrida, McNeal, Pirtleville, Douglas, Saginaw, Old Bisbee, and the surrounding areas signed the petition.
The 1980 Groundwater Management Act allows residents of a community to initiate these groundwater protections themselves at the ballot. On March 18, AWD submitted a petition for a Willcox Basin AMA, marking the first time in the state’s history when that had been done. Cochise County Elections has validated those signatures, and the measure to create a Willcox Basin AMA will be on the ballot this November.
“ The Arizona Legislature continues to do nothing to protect finite rural groundwater, so the only way voters can preserve their groundwater supplies is to establish an Active Management Area in the Douglas Groundwater Basin. This new AMA would protect homeowners, businesses, industries and agriculture through conservation, permits for new large wells, and safeguards for small domestic wells. It’s a critical moment for the Douglas area and the time to act has arrived,” says Kathleen Ferris, one of the architects of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and one of the first directors of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).
Arizona has five AMAs in other parts of the state. Part of the Douglas Basin was designated an Irrigation Non-Expansion Area (INA) in 1980, but that has proved inadequate to prevent the overdraft of groundwater by the high-capacity pumps typically used in agricultural operations. The
median drop in groundwater levels in the basin was one to three feet a year from 2009 to 2019, according to the Arizona Water Blueprint from the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute at Arizona State University.
Rebekah Wilce, who lives in the Elfrida area and serves as AWD’s treasurer, said that small farmers and other residents have been affected by dropping groundwater levels. “People are struggling. Their wells are running dry, and it’s expensive to drill deeper,” Wilce said. “Some have to resort to hauling water, which can be a real hardship.”
Overpumping in the area is also causing land subsidence at among the highest rates in the state, according to ADWR, leading to earth fissures opening across private property and roadways. Inside the Douglas INA, the land subsidence rate in the Elfrida area was greater than 2.8 inches a year, according to ADWR’s latest subsidence rate maps, while regions of the Willcox Basin have subsided at a rate of as much as 9.8 inches a year.
Mary Ann Capehart, AWD Research Coordinator, said, “Are massive corporate farms really in keeping with the rural character of our county? We need to think carefully about the impact of agricultural operations that use millions of gallons of water a day, draining our aquifer and threatening access to well water for all but the most affluent in the Sulphur Springs Valley.”
“More than 2,000 people signed the Douglas Basin AMA petition because they know our groundwater needs better protection from overpumping,” said Ashley Dahlke, AWD Chair. “Voting for the Willcox and Douglas AMAs is a positive step toward a stable water supply for the long term.”
AWD submitted over 2,240 signatures, and 1,346 are required. Cochise County Elections is working to validate signatures in the next few weeks. Once validated, the Elections Department will notify the Board of Supervisors, and the measure to create an AMA for the Douglas Basin will be placed on the November ballot.
About the Arizona Water Defenders: The Arizona Water Defenders (arizonawaterdefenders.com) is a grassroots community group composed of residents of the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins that works to preserve groundwater for current and future residents. It is organized as a political action committee in order to circulate ballot measure petitions to create Active Management Areas in the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins. AWD is committed to continued engagement in order to maintain and rebuild our community’s ability to survive and thrive with a healthy groundwater reserve.
Common sense limitations on industrial ag water use is how we regain control of our future, our communities, and our homes.
We are launching a campaign to create groundwater active management areas (AMAs) in the Sulphur Springs Valley. The creation of these AMAs will be a meaningful step that we, as a community, can take toward saving our residential, small farm/ranch, and community wells. This will enable us to reclaim control over our future in this valley and in our communities...
Douglas Groundwater Basin Map
Willcox Groundwater Basin Map
The Arizona Water Defenders are a group of local Cochise county residents and well owners advocating for the protection of our natural, precious, and fragile resources in the Willcox and Douglas Basins.
PO BOX 126, Elfrida AZ 85610