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.
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
Response to Willcox City Council's AMA Discussion 4/7/22 and Arizona Range News article “Movement to Manage Groundwater in Willcox Basin Gaining Traction” 4/20/22
April 27, 2022
Thank you for addressing the crucial issue of our groundwater in the Willcox Basin. There are some important things to clarify about the possibility of creating an Active Management Area (AMA) here.
An AMA is a tool for managing the groundwater consumption of large-scale users within a groundwater basin. Small-scale users like residential wells that pump less than 35 gallons a minute are exempted.
The Groundwater Users Advisory Council (GUAC) appointed in relation to an AMA may only advise, not govern an AMA. Its members are appointed “to represent the users of groundwater” in the AMA (ARS 45-420). It does not “set” usage policy. It “advise[s] the area director” for the AMA, makes “recommendations on groundwater management programs and policies for the active management area,” and may comment on draft management plans (ARS 45-421).
The community, including growers, is guaranteed input into the process of creating and adopting management goals and plans for a new AMA through public hearings held in the basin (ARS 45-570). If those goals and plans don’t meet the community’s needs, the law allows the community to challenge them through a process of judicial review (ARS 45-114).
Under an AMA, irrigation water rights would be managed by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), not the governor or the GUAC.
An AMA would protect our groundwater from overdraft, not make it available for users in other parts of the state. Currently, landowners from outside Arizona are making heavy use of our groundwater without any limits. The fact that we do not have other sources of water here is exactly why we need some basic protections for the only water we do have.
It is true that, once the board of supervisors calls an election to establish an AMA, a freeze on new irrigable land would go into effect, and that freeze would stay in effect if the majority of voters in the basin vote to create the AMA (ARS 45-416).
Given that the City of Willcox’s wells have dropped 40 feet in four years, according to City Manager Caleb Blaschke (in Willcox City Council minutes for the April 7 meeting), it doesn’t seem like continuing to do nothing about groundwater overdraft is the best way forward.
The Arizona Water Defenders (AWD) is a local grassroots group entirely made up of residents of the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins. We advocate for residents of these two basins to have the choice of whether or not to create AMAs on the November 2022 ballot. Our leaders are based in Pearce, Elfrida, and Bisbee. Volunteers who have helped collect signatures live in many parts of both basins. All volunteers live in Cochise County. AWD has no leaders or volunteers based in Tucson. We are entirely supported by small donations from local residents and landowners.
Residents of the Willcox Basin want to make sure we'll continue to have enough water for the long term, and we believe our citizens’ initiative is the best way to move forward.
Willcox Basin Coordinator
Arizona Water Defenders
Chair, Arizona Water Defenders
Treasurer, Arizona Water Defenders
Mary Ann Capeheart
Research Coordinator, Arizona Water Defenders
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
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