Community Stories

Community Members from the Douglas and Willcox Groundwater basins share their own experiences with groundwater decline, facts on groundwater decline, and facts on Active Management Areas. These speeches were originally presented to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors during the Call to the Public section of their regularly scheduled meetings. 

Organized by order that they were given:

5/24/22- Ash Dahlke

My name is Ashley Dahlke and I am the chair of the Arizona Water Defenders PAC. We are a completely grassroots, volunteer-based, non-partisan group of concerned citizens in Cochise County. The Arizona Constitution allows the enactment of laws by the people through citizens’ initiatives. We are advancing two of these initiatives for ballot measures to designate the Douglas and Willcox groundwater basins as Active Management Areas, or AMAs. 

 

In AMAs, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) monitors and manages the groundwater consumption of large-scale users, with input from the affected community and from a Groundwater Users Advisory Council appointed by the governor. Eighty-two percent of the state’s population already lives within AMAs created through the passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980.

 

In AMAs, only high-production wells are monitored and subject to reasonable groundwater use limitations or best management practices. Exempt wells, such as residential wells that pump less than 35 gallons per minute and are not used for commercial operations, are not required to meter or report water use and are not regulated by ADWR.

 

New water rules in states across the U.S. have driven large-scale water users into rural areas with little to no common-sense groundwater protection. This influx of out-of-state growers has harmed many local communities, businesses, and residents by causing earth fissures to open up and wells to run dry. We are forced to choose between paying tens of thousands of dollars to deepen our wells (which may need to be drilled deeper again in the future), or abandoning our homes, farms, and businesses.

 

In March, the Arizona Water Defenders made history when we submitted petitions to the Cochise County Elections Department for the Willcox groundwater basin AMA ballot measure. County Elections validated the signatures in April. Signatures for the Douglas groundwater basin will be submitted before July 7th. 

 

Despite an influx of industrial growers intent on exploiting our groundwater resources during an extreme long-term drought, we have not had any truly new AMAs created since 1980. That’s more than 40 years of inaction on the part of government at all levels. In November, the voters will decide for themselves on common-sense regulation to conserve our groundwater. 

6/7/22- Mary Ann Capehart

My name is Mary Ann Capehart. I live in Bisbee, Arizona. I am the Research Coordinator for the Arizona Water Defenders, a grassroots, volunteer based, non-partisan group of concerned citizens in Cochise County who are advancing two initiatives for ballot measures to designate the Douglas and Willcox groundwater basins as Active Management Areas, or AMAs. 

 

I’m here today to make sure everyone knows that there are two classifications of water wells in Arizona and why that’s important to know. 

 

Wells that pump more than 35 gallons per minute are classified as non-exempt wells, meaning they are not exempt from regulation. Non-exempt wells are used to produce water generally for irrigation, mining, and public water supply. Many non-exempt wells in the valley are pumping 1,100 gallons per minute and more. 

 

Wells that pump 35 gallons a minute or less are classified as exempt wells and are generally exempt from regulation. Exempt wells are commonly used for domestic uses including watering yards and gardens, and watering stock. Exempt wells in AMAs are not required to be metered. Well owners relying on exempt wells do not report how much water they are using and do not pay duties or fees on the water they are using. Anyone using an exempt well for non-irrigation purposes does not need a water right or permit to pump. 

 

The legal definition of irrigation is watering more than 2 acres of land for growing plants for sale or human consumption, or for use as feed for livestock, range livestock or poultry. If someone is using an exempt well for commercial growing in an AMA, they would be limited to using 10 acre feet a year, which amounts to about 3 million gallons of water a year.

 

Anyone who’s unsure about the classification of their well can check the Registry of Wells in Arizona (“Wells 55”) available on the website of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. 

 

You may read or hear, as we have recently, that “AMAs limit the amount of water anyone can use,” but that statement is clearly incorrect. 

 

When the Arizona Water Defenders were beginning our work last year, we wanted to make sure we understood the difference between non-exempt and exempt wells in an AMA. We emailed the communications administrator at the Arizona Department of Water Resources and asked whether exempt wells are exempt from all AMA requirements. His email, dated July 22, 2021, assured us that, quote, “exempt wells are called 'exempt' for a reason - they are exempt from management requirements, including metering and fees.”

6/21/22- Cheryl Knott

My name is Cheryl Knott. I have lived in Pearce for 20 years and I vote in Precinct 8. I am the Willcox Basin coordinator for the Arizona Water Defenders, a grassroots, volunteer based, non-partisan group of concerned citizens in Cochise County who are advancing two initiatives for ballot measures to designate the Douglas and Willcox groundwater basins as Active Management Areas (AMAs). 

 

AMAs were established after passage of Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980. Currently 82% of Arizonans live inside the boundaries of the state’s five AMAs, but most rural areas have been left out. Each AMA has its own management goal and plan for reaching that goal. In most AMAs, the goal is safe yield, a balance between the amount of groundwater being withdrawn and the amount being replaced.

 

In January, the Arizona Department of Water Resources issued a report titled Overdraft, Safe-Yield, and the Management Goals of Arizona’s Active Management Areas. The report says that safe yield is hard to reach and hard to maintain. Nevertheless, the goal of safe yield, and I quote, “has undoubtedly guided the AMAs towards a more resilient future than would otherwise be the case.”

 

People depending on the Willcox and Douglas groundwater basins deserve a more resilient future and a stable water supply over the long term. 

 

One of the great benefits of the AMA is that it is an existing and available option. 

 

One of the great benefits of the citizens’ initiatives to designate the Willcox and Douglas basins as AMAs is the conversation that is going on about our groundwater. When the voters approve the AMAs on November 8, a new phase of the conversation begins. The governor appoints a Groundwater Users Advisory Council of local stakeholders, and members of the community can give input through public hearings about specific plans. 

 

AMAs are a way to help us pay attention to what’s happening with the groundwater we’re dependent on and to talk to each other about groundwater use as we plan for a more resilient future.

7/26/22- Neil Petersen

I operate two water utilities here in the Douglas Basin with over 40 years of experience.  What is happening to the water table in this area is causing concern since a number of domestic wells have gone dry this year. Within the past year, three residences have had their wells go dry and applied to get water service from McNeal Water Company. Two other households have recently told me they may need to hook up to town water since their wells are having trouble. With a service membership of 25 homes and businesses, the potential addition of five more service connections could require an expensive infrastructure upgrade the water company can ill-afford and rate increases that my customers can ill-afford. These trends show there is a serious problem with the combined effects of agricultural over-pumping and the ongoing drought.

 

Since I offer the service of measuring static and drawdown water levels for private wells, I get firsthand information about the health of the aquifer in McNeal’s surrounding areas. Here are some examples: Within the past year, the Lee Merchans/Doug Hesst 3-household well share at 250 feet went dry and they had to drill a new well to 500 feet. Dale Bowman’s well is just east of that 3-household well share and it’s failing after the farm to the west dropped its six wells from 500 feet to 1000 feet.  Kyle Brazeal’s new 448-feet well near Elfrida cost him and his family $40,000. The Arizona Department of Water Resources measured static levels in the two wells at the nearby airport at 200’ – a 10-foot drop in the last 6 years.  These are not encouraging trendlines.

 

Allow me if you will to predict the future. If these trends continue, we’ll lose the rural residential part of the tax base, then the small ranchers and farmers, and then the big ag interests will dry up and leave.  Somewhere along the way, the towns and suburbs will be impacted. Without adequate fresh water, real estate in Cochise County will become worthless, our tax base and economic prosperity seriously diminished.

 

Groundwater is a finite resource, and it will take active management to slow the over-pumping so that we have a stable water supply we can all rely on. That’s why I signed and circulated the Arizona Water Defenders petition to put an Active Management Area for the Douglas Basin on the November ballot.

 

It’s a race to the bottom, literally and figuratively.  Those with the deepest pockets will have the deepest wells.  Those with shallower wells and shallower pockets will be the losers.  Ultimately, when the water’s gone, we will all lose.  Now is the time to act and establish AMAs in Cochise County. Thank you.

8/13/22- Ash Dahlke

 

I am the Chair of the Arizona Water Defenders PAC which is a non-partisan group of concerned citizens in Cochise County. I’m here to say Vote YES to Designate the Douglas and Willcox Groundwater Basins as an Active Management Areas, Propositions 420 & 422, our only options for saving groundwater for future generations. 

 

Many of you have noticed the new pivots irrigating new crops and the enormous new orchards in the Sulphur Springs Valley. These are the farms of industrial growers, most from out of state. They can exploit our groundwater resources because our area has weak water rules and no plans to keep groundwater pumping reasonable. 

 

Industrial agriculture can pump as much as they want as fast as they can. This excessive pumping is lowering the water table, harming local communities, businesses, and residents by causing fissures to open up and wells to run dry. We are forced to choose between paying tens of thousands of dollars to deepen our wells (which may need to be drilled deeper again in the future), or abandoning our homes, farms, and businesses.

 

Not only are farmers affected by groundwater overdraft. Town, city, and private water providers will inevitably raise water rates for customers when lower water tables mean they have to deepen their wells. Conserving our groundwater under an Active Management Areas will help prevent this from happening more often.

 

In Active Management Areas (AMAs), the Arizona Department of Water Resources monitors and manages the groundwater consumption of large-scale users, with input from the affected community and from a Groundwater Users Advisory Council which is appointed by the governor. Eighty-two percent of the state’s population already lives within AMAs created through the passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980.
 

In AMAs, only high-production wells are monitored and subject to reasonable groundwater use limitations or best management practices. Exempt wells, such as residential wells pumping 35 gallons per minute or less are generally not required to meter or report water use and are not managed under an AMA.

 

In an ongoing drought, the water in our aquifer will not be replaced any time soon. We need to keep water accessible for everybody, not just those who can afford to drill deep and pump fast. Vote YES for Proposition 422 or Proposition 420.

8/30/22- MaryAnn Capehart 

Today the Cochise County Board of Supervisors acknowledges that the Willcox Basin and Douglas Basin AMA initiatives will be on the November 8 ballot. Here is a short timeline of what got us here:

 

2002

Third driest winter since 1895, Cochise County Board of Supervisors declares a State of Emergency.

 

2006

United States Geological Survey, USGS, with Arizona Department of Water Resources, ADWR, publishes a Fact Sheet on the basins stating that, "There is concern about the future availability of water for all uses."

 

2010

The State Legislature passes a law overruling county restrictions on feedlots as part of diary operations. This paves the way for mega-dairies in the County.

 

2014

A group of farmers, vintners, and Sunsites homeowners, calling themselves the Willcox Basin Conservation Area Working Group, meets with the ADWR.

 

A family dairy south of Willcox sells to an out-of-state mega-dairy for $38 million in cash also buying 6,474 acres of surrounding land. This operation now has over 330 wells permitted across the valley.

 

2015

State legislators fail to back The Willcox Working Group plan for local management. 

 

The USGS releases a report on land subsidence and earth fissures naming the Willcox Basin as the area of most concern in the state.


 

 

2019

NBC News produces Draining Arizona: Residents say corporate mega-farms are drying up their wells

 

2020

ADWR publishes updated Statewide Groundwater Level Changes in Arizona, showing persistent groundwater level declines in both basins.

 

2021

Arizona Water Defenders forms and begins circulating petitions 

The UK Guardian publishes Mega-dairies, disappearing wells, and Arizona’s deepening water crisis 

Cochise County becomes the 3rd in pecan and pistachio production in the nation. Irrigated nut orchard acres increase dramatically.

Arizona Geological Survey reports persistent subsidence, the worst in the state. 


 

2022

A journalist reports that the largest water user in the valley uses 110,000 acre feet a year for irrigation according to their spokesperson. This is the amount Tucson Water utility delivers annually.

Douglas Basin AMA and Willcox Basin AMA petition signatures are submitted to the County and verified.

Arizona Water Defenders prevail in Court against a challenge to their petitions.  

 

Take a moment to reflect. Today is a good day for groundwater that gives us all life.