Below are fact sheets created by the Arizona Water Defenders. Downloadable sheets can be found below each section.
The Willcox and Douglas Basins are in Trouble
Questions, Answers, Myths & Facts About Agriculture & AMAs in the Sulphur Springs Valley
The huge increase in irrigated agriculture in the last several years means the Sulphur Springs Valley likely now has the highest number of acres Irrigated in its history.
What about Agriculture in Cochise County?
Agriculture is important to and well established in Cochise County. The Arizona Water Defenders (AWD) seek to preserve our ability to keep farming and ranching here in the Sulphur Springs Valley into the future. Growers need water. Everyone who lives and works here needs water. At current rates of overdraft, we won’t have the affordable water we need to sustain our community and our economy.
Many smaller farms and ranches have been sold to larger out-of-state industrial agricultural businesses. As a result, some local businesses that relied on them are struggling or have been forced to close. The list of local businesses that the Cochise County Farm & Livestock Bureau says are supported and directly impacted by farmers and ranchers contains several of these closed or struggling businesses.
Despite the fact that Cochise County has gone to great lengths to accommodate massive irrigators, these corporations are not providing many local jobs.
In August 2017, one of the largest of these mega-irrigators, Riverview LLP detailed to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors their practice of importing several tiers of immigrant labor from other countries through work visa programs in order to meet their employment needs.
Although the local Farm Bureau has publicly come out against the local grassroots groundwater conservation AMA voter initiative, Farm Bureau representatives have acknowledged that groundwater overdraft due to irrigation is a severe problem here.
In December 2019, the president of the Cochise County Farm & Livestock Bureau at the time was quoted in the Arizona Republic saying, "The best-case scenario, we're sucking out four times as much as we're putting in."
There’s no controversy: Industrial agriculture and its aggressive irrigation expansion have negatively impacted quality of life for Sulphur Springs Valley residents.
It is long past time to take steps to conserve our groundwater with some common sense limits that will serve all people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins.
What is an AMA?
Well levels in the Willcox and Douglas Basins are dropping rapidly. An Active Management Area (AMA) is a tool the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) can use to manage the groundwater consumption of large-scale users. It can help ensure that all interests are considered: not just of those who can afford to drill deeper and pump faster, but of all who want their children and grandchildren to be able to live and prosper here.
Myths & Facts:
Myth: AMAs limit the amount of water anyone can use. They increase government intervention on all wells and water usage.
Fact: Groundwater users pumping less than 35 gallons a minute (such as residential wells) are exempt from AMA rules. These wells won’t be metered or limited.
Myth: If an AMA is established, cities and other municipal providers will not be able to expand.
Fact: Municipal water providers will be able to expand their service areas and customer base. They’ll be enrolled in conservation programs. In existing AMAs, municipal water providers have chosen a daily per capita use rate or best management practices. Municipal providers can serve new subdivisions if there’s a certified assured water supply. This protects the home buyer’s and developer’s investments.
Myth: If an AMA is created, irrigated agriculture cannot be expanded beyond acreage irrigated during the late 1970s.
Fact: All acreage irrigated during the five years before the Board of Supervisors calls an AMA election can still be irrigated. A new AMA would not prohibit new users from growing plants on less than two acres.
Myth: An AMA would limit agricultural use to a certain number of acre-feet per acre.
Fact: An irrigation user would likely have two conservation options: to comply with a water duty, which is a quantity of water reasonably required to irrigate crops historically grown in a farm unit, assuming conservation measures that would be reasonable; or to implement best management practices designed to achieve equivalent conservation.
Myth: An AMA would push out our largest economic engine, harming related businesses and the tax base.
Fact: Owners of land irrigated at any time during the five years preceding the call for an AMA election are eligible for grandfathered irrigation rights. Those rights are sold when the land is sold, allowing continued irrigation by the new owner. This continues as long as the land is irrigated. More land is being irrigated than ever before and groundwater levels are dropping fast. We cannot add more irrigated acres and expect the aquifer to achieve a safer level of use. More irrigated acres may also make it prohibitively expensive for smaller farms to reach lower water levels for irrigation.
Myth: An AMA was meant to be implemented in large cities where there are other water sources to replace groundwater.
Fact: A “replacement" water supply like a river or canal is not a prerequisite. An AMA can help stretch groundwater supplies for the benefit of residents and landowners within the AMA, making it even more necessary for areas totally dependent on groundwater.
Myth: If an AMA is established, those who pump groundwater from a non-exempt well that pumps over 35 gallons per minute must pay an annual groundwater withdrawal fee to ADWR.
Fact: Only those who pump groundwater in the Phoenix, Pinal, Prescott, Santa Cruz, and Tucson AMAs can be charged groundwater withdrawal fees under current law.
Myth: If an AMA is put in place, we will have no control over our water. The ADWR will be in full control.
Fact: The affected community – including the agricultural community – 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. If those goals and plans don’t meet the community’s needs, the community can challenge them through a process of judicial review.
For more information, see arizonawaterdefenders.com. Sign the petition to put the Douglas Basin AMA on the ballot, and vote YES for AMAs in the Willcox and Douglas Basins on November 8, 2022.
Information in the AMA Myths & Facts section is primarily based on a memo dated May 1, 2022 from Kathleen Ferris, a primary drafter of the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act that created AMAs and a former Director of ADWR. For more detail about AMA law, please consult Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S) § 45-114; 45-402(24); 45-402(31); 45-412; 45-415; 45-465; 45-492; 45-493; 45-569; 45-570; 45-576; and 45-611.
Vote YES to Make the Douglas Groundwater Basin an Active Management Area
Douglas Groundwater Basin
This groundwater basin under the Sulphur Springs Valley begins just north of Elfrida, Arizona, and continues down past Douglas into Sonora, Mexico, an area of about 1,200 square miles. This groundwater is generally of excellent to good quality for irrigation use, according to the United States Geological Survey. Water found deep in the aquifer – called dinosaur water because of the era when it entered the aquifer – is mostly “sweet,” where water at these depths in other aquifers around the state is often of poor quality. This makes it very appealing to agri-businesses looking to irrigate.
Dry Wells Leave Residents Hauling Water or Selling to Expanding Industrial-Scale Farms
Long-time residents in the basin report that wells that were dependable for years have run dry. This is often due to the expansion of industrial-scale agriculture pumping water from deep wells with high-output pumps to irrigate crops. These large wells pull down the water level in a cone of depression, causing their neighbors’ water levels to go down, often below the depth of their shallower wells. This leaves residential well owners with little alternative but to dig deeper, haul in water, or sell to large agri-businesses who have the funds to dig deeper wells.
Many homeowners and small farmers find themselves on essentially valueless property if they are unable to restore water access. Hauling water is an alternative, but that gets expensive, and it’s difficult for many residents to haul their own water.
Please report a dry well and encourage your neighbors to do the same, using the following ADWR reporting link: https://new.azwater.gov/report-dry-well-data.
Groundwater Levels Are Dropping
In 1980, a portion of irrigated farm land was carved out of the Douglas Groundwater Basin to become an Irrigation Non-Expansion Area, or INA. This meant that no new acreage (two acres or larger) in this area could be irrigated, with the intention of conserving groundwater. Yet even this restriction has not kept the Douglas Basin from developing an overdraft problem, and it is getting worse. Groundwater overdraft occurs when the amount of water being withdrawn from an aquifer exceeds the amount that naturally replenishes it, even during a year with normal rainfall.
Within the Douglas Basin INA, agricultural operations use approximately 47,300 acre-feet of water per year to irrigate corn and alfalfa fields. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre one foot deep in water, or about 326,000 gallons of water.) Estimated groundwater replenishment into the aquifer in the Douglas Basin is 22,000 acre-feet per year (from rain and other sources). We are taking out a lot more than is going in.
Because the INA has no limitation on groundwater use by those with irrigation rights, groundwater levels continue to drop in the Douglas Basin INA and in the surrounding basin. According to an ADWR Report dated December 2020, groundwater levels measured in the INA dropped an average of 33 feet a year over the ten years between 1998 and 2018. The greatest drop measured was 141 feet at a location in the INA.
Groundwater Extraction by Mega-Farms Irrigating Water-Intensive Crops
Underscoring the failure of the Douglas INA to protect our groundwater resource, a California-based nut grower named Valley Pride Ag Company operating in the Douglas INA got a permit in 2019 to drill a 2,200 foot deep well. That’s over 1,700 feet deeper than the average residential well permitted in the same time period. In 2022 alone (January through April), over twenty new large-capacity wells have been permitted by the ADWR in the Douglas INA. About half of these are approved to go 1,200 feet deep. Seventeen of these will be operated by a single business, Minnesota-based Riverview, LLP, the largest water user in the Willcox Basin and now expanding into the Douglas Basin INA.
Stronger Tools Are Needed to Stop Groundwater Overdraft
An INA does not place common-sense limits on how much water can be pumped on those acres. Growers who own – or who have purchased – land with existing irrigation rights are free to drill new high-production wells and pump as much groundwater as they like.
Owners of irrigation rights within the INA can also transfer portions of water rights to other properties within the INA that do not have existing irrigation rights, thus expanding irrigation in the irrigation non-expansion area. Large-scale irrigators in the INA have been taking advantage of this process in recent years and using it to activate more than a thousand acres of new farmland and drill many new high-production wells.
A Lower Water Table Leads to Other Problems
When the water table drops, land below the surface that was formerly held up by the water compacts and collapses. This causes the ground to sink (a process called subsidence), and this causes fissures – cracks in the earth – to open up. Fissures endanger livestock, utility pipes, and human safety.
ADWR has been keeping records documenting subsidence in the heart of the Douglas INA and groundwater basin in and around Elfrida. And, although ADWR can create an Active Management Area (AMA) if subsidence is underway in a groundwater basin, the agency has failed to take any new action to protect our wells or the future of our community.
Make the Entire Douglas Basin an Active Management Area
The Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980 gives us the tools we need to manage our groundwater so that our homes and communities and the economy of the Sulphur Springs Valley will have a future. Specifically, the law states that residents of a groundwater basin may petition to hold an election on whether to designate their basin as an AMA. If the ballot initiative passes, ADWR is required to plan for the conservation of groundwater in our basin. An AMA would supersede an INA, bringing the entire Douglas Basin into AMA status.
Creation of the Douglas Basin AMA would involve ADWR working with a Groundwater Users Advisory Council appointed by the Governor and holding public hearings so that communities and stakeholders can participate in decision-making. There would be no new irrigation of land two acres or larger, and each acre that has been irrigated within five years of the creation of the AMA would be grandfathered in to allow continued irrigation. The city of Douglas would either limit its use to a daily per capita rate or it would implement best management practices for wise conservation of groundwater.
How Do We Do This? What Can I Do?
We are doing this through a citizens’ ballot initiative. The Arizona Water Defenders website gives detailed information on our proposed solution to our groundwater problem and steps you can take to change the way we are using our precious groundwater: https://www.arizonawaterdefenders.com. Or email us at email@example.com.
For sources for this information, please consult the document Douglas Basin Fact Sheet under Resources/Information/FAQs at https://www.arizonawaterdefenders.com.
Downloadable Douglas Groundwater basin fact sheet:
Subsidence and Fissures
groundwater overpumping ➡️land subsidence ➡️ earth fissures
Homeowners spend $15,000 - $30,000 or more each to deepen or dig wells.
Aquifers cannot hold groundwater under subsided soil.
Taxpayer dollars go to fix damaged roads, such as U.S. 191 in Sunsites and Jefferson Road in Elfrida when new cracks appeared in July 2021.
Owners must disclose fissures on their property prior to sale.
Fissures can channel motor oil, mining chemicals, and agricultural run-off into our drinking water.
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources:
Three to eight times as much water is being pumped out of the Willcox Basin as is going back in.
There are no external sources of surface water to increase the amount of groundwater in the basin, which is replenished only by rain, snowmelt and a very small amount of recycled waste water.
The Willcox Groundwater Basin has the highest land subsidence rate in Arizona.
Due to excessive groundwater pumping, groundwater levels will likely continue to decline, leading to more land subsidence.
Subsidence and fissures are happening in both the Willcox and the Douglas basins.
What is groundwater overpumping?
Overpumping occurs when the amount of groundwater pumped out of the basin far exceeds the amount going back in. The water table is declining two to eight feet a year in many areas in the Willcox and Douglas basins due to huge withdrawals of groundwater by industrial agriculture, mega-orchards, and other large users.
How does land subsidence happen?
According to ADWR “As the water table declines, pores in the alluvium [a material that holds groundwater] once held open by water pressure are no longer supported and collapse. Collapse and subsequent lowering in elevation of the land surface is defined as land subsidence.”
What are fissures?
Fissures are tension cracks in the land caused by uneven levels of land subsidence.
What can be done?
Arizona state law protects groundwater, but only in Active Management Areas (with some weak protection in Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas). In the Phoenix and Tucson AMAs, land subsidence has decreased between 25% and 90% because of less groundwater pumping, greater recharge of the aquifers, and rising groundwater levels.
ADWR manages AMAs, with public involvement through an appointed Groundwater Users Advisory Council and through public meetings to get input on AMA goals and plans.
the Arizona Water Defenders
so we can vote in 2022
on whether to create AMAs
to protect the Willcox Basin and the Douglas Basin.
LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE!
Petition signing places and times at https://www.arizonawaterdefenders.com
Arizona Department of Water Resources, Land Subsidence in the Willcox Basin
ADWR, Land Subsidence Monitoring Report Number 4, 2019 https://new.azwater.gov/sites/default/files/ADWR%20Land%20Subsidence%20Monitoring%20Report_Number4_Final.pdf
ADWR, Statewide Groundwater Level Changes in Arizona Water Years 2017 to 2018, 2008 to 2018, and 1998 to 2018
Arizona Geological Survey, Land Subsidence and Earth Fissures in Arizona
http://repository.azgs.az.gov/uri_gin/azgs/dlio/1713 (link to the full report is at this url)
State Geologist of Arizona, That sinking feeling: State-of-art technology at work on Arizona subsidence finds you’re not imagining it
Arizona Revised Statutes, 33-422, Land divisions; recording; disclosure affidavit https://www.azleg.gov/viewdocument/?docName=https://www.azleg.gov/ars/33/00422.htm
Arizona Revised Statutes, Title 45 Waters, Chapter 2 Groundwater Code
United States Geological Survey, Land Subsidence, https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/land-subsidence?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
Downloadable PDF of Fissures Fact Sheet:
Active Management Area (AMA)
What it is and what it can do for water conservation in our community
What is an Active Management Area?
Active Management Areas (AMAs) allow for water management by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) within a groundwater basin, in order to manage the groundwater consumption of large-scale users.
Only high-production wells are monitored and subject to groundwater use limitations or management in an AMA. Exempt wells, such as residential wells and other wells that pump less than 35 gallons per minute, are not required to meter or report water use and are not regulated by ADWR.
An AMA can be created by the residents of affected groundwater basins, for the protection of their homes and communities. Under Arizona law, we may petition to hold a local election on this, and decide for ourselves if this is what we want to do in order to ensure we have a future in this valley.
What does an AMA mean for me and my well?
Only non-exempt wells, large wells that pump 35 gallons per minute or more, will have their wells monitored and potentially limited. This typically only includes large-scale farming, power plants, municipal water suppliers, and golf courses. ADWR, with the input of these large users and other community members, would create a fair management program for these large users with the goal of ensuring water for all users, within reason, for many years to come.
Have AMA’s been implemented before?
Yes, 82% of the state’s population lives within AMAs! Currently, there are AMAs in place in the areas of Phoenix, Prescott, Tucson, Pinal County, and Santa Cruz County, where they have assisted in managing groundwater overdraft through carefully implemented stipulations for large water users. (Groundwater overdraft is when groundwater is taken out at a faster rate than it is replenished.)
These AMA’s, with the exception of the Santa Cruz AMA, were created through the passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980, which left out many rural communities in Arizona. The Santa Cruz AMA, originally a portion of the existing Tucson AMA, was created by the state legislature in 1994.
So, while our state has now seen decades of severe drought and an influx of out-of-state growers intent on exploiting our groundwater resources, we have not had any truly new AMA created since 1980. That’s 41 years of inaction on the part of our legislature and the ADWR.
Why create an AMA now?
New water rules in states across the U.S. have driven large-scale water users into the rural counties of Arizona, where there are no common-sense groundwater protections.
This influx of out-of-state growers has harmed many local communities, businesses, and residents by causing wells to run dry. We are forced to choose between paying around $30,000 to deepen our wells (which may need to be drilled deeper again in the future), or abandoning our homes, farms, or businesses for a place where water might be more stable.
What is the difference between an AMA and an INA?
Irrigation Non-expansion Areas (INAs) were put in place by ADWR at the same time as AMAs, and there is a Douglas INA within the Douglas Basin. An INA only prohibits the use of groundwater for new irrigation operations (i.e. properties that did not have ‘grandfathered’ irrigation rights in place prior to 1980).
There are absolutely no limits on how much groundwater large-scale water users may pump in an INA. In an AMA, common sense limitations and groundwater best management practices may be put in place for large-scale water users. This is done to ensure that all water users (including residences, schools, municipal water districts, and businesses) will continue to have access to groundwater.
As we have learned in the Douglas Basin, INA guidelines have shown themselves to have many loopholes. For example, an agricultural property with groundwater rights can be purchased by new owners (such as the out-of-state growers flooding into our area), have wells deepened and/or added, and its water use greatly expanded without violating the INA terms. Water rights can also be bundled and transferred to new properties within the INA that had no existing irrigation rights.
How do we make an AMA?
Under Arizona Law, residents of a groundwater basin can petition for a ballot initiative that would allow folks within the basin to vote and decide for themselves whether they would like to implement an AMA. This is the most direct way for us to decide the fate of our groundwater and our communities.
We only need ten percent of registered voters living in the basin to sign the petition in order to get the question of whether we should have an AMA on the ballot. Alternately, Arizona law states that the director of ADWR can create an AMA through executive action , if he deems this necessary. It should be noted, however, that ADWR has not created any new AMA since the creation of the original AMAs in 1980 and that ADWR has decided against community requests for groundwater protections in both the Willcox Basin and San Simon groundwater sub-basin.
We do not have time to sit around and wait for the ADWR director or our lawmakers to do their jobs. We were sitting around and waiting for help when the wells in our homes, our schools, and our businesses began to run dry. It is now painfully clear that no help is coming from our “leaders” in government. Now it is time for us to get this on the ballot and decide the issue through a vote.
We are going to circulate a petition to get this on the ballot in the next election. Keep updated through our mailing list, join through our website. https://www.arizonawaterdefenders.com/.
Downloadable AMA Fact Sheet PDF: