Reports from the Arizona Water Defenders:
ADWR has turned a blind eye to complaints of earth fissures and drying wells since at least 2015-- shirking statutory responsibilities to our communities.
This summer, earth fissures shut down Highway 191 in the Richland area, causing disruptions to local traffic and commerce. Though these giant cracks in the ground brought statewide attention to groundwater issues in Cochise County, records show that area residents have long been warning the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) of earth fissures opening up around them and residential wells running dry due to intensifying agricultural water use.
Despite these warnings, and their statutory mandate to protect groundwater in our communities, the state water management agency apparently turned a blind eye to the worsening water crisis in Cochise County.
For example, on September 22, 2015, Richland-area homeowner Pamela Lane submitted a complaint to ADWR.
"I live in Richland Ranchettes, in Cochise County," wrote Lane. "My concern is the new agricultural well drilling along Dragoon Road, that is reducing the water table. Many wells in Richland Ranchettes have gone dry and people have been forced to either abandon their property, or suffer the expense of deepening their well. My neighbor had to re-drill his well to 400 [feet] at a cost of $17,000. Many people in this area are elderly and cannot afford this expense.
"There was a new well drilled at the Dragoon Road, Cochise Stronghold Road intersection, which caused an earth fissure to open up, requiring repair. there has been another fissure on Arabian Lane, between Papago Way and Apache Way. All due to the lower water table in the area. Now, there is yet another agricultural well being drilled along the Dragoon Road area.
"How much more reduction in the water table can we expect? My own well is 288 feet, with the pump set at 266 [feet]. How long until my well runs dry and a new one needed? We simply cannot afford $17,000 for a new well and would likely hav to abandon the property. Is anyone looking after the homeowners best interest in protecting our water rights?"
Lane has since moved out of the state, due in part to the water crisis. Contacted via email, she told Arizona Water Defenders that ADWR never responded to her complaint in any meaningful way.
Records show that ADWR Special Projects Coordinator Jeff Trembly did contact Lane on October 8, 2015, stating that they had become "aware of homeowner concerns about wells going dry in the Richland area in September 2014." Trembly went on to assure Lane that the agency was working with a group of water users in the area "interested in proposing to the Legislature an alternative to an Active Management Area or and Irrigation Non-expansion Area" for their groundwater basin.
It is important to note that Trembly, in his response to Lane's complaint, failed to acknowledge the reported earth fissures, or the fact that, under Arizona Law, ADWR has the power to create an active management area (AMA) through executive action if earth fissures due to overuse of groundwater are found to be occurring in a groundwater basin.
[AMAs enact common sense limitations on groundwater use through high-production wells, pumping 35 gallons per minute or more. This does not include residential wells.]
Tricia Gerrodette, a local activist who was involved with the conservation efforts referenced by Trembly in his response to Lane's complaint, said that ADWR's role in the effort was limited and that the effort eventually died for lack of legislative support. And, Gerrodette noted, ADWR's budget is set by the legislature. She further speculated that the agency was likely responding to political pressures against groundwater management.
ADWR records show that, since the time of Lane's complaint in September 2015, the agency approved the drilling or deepening at least 360 high-output "non-exempt" wells (capable of pumping 35 gallons per minute or more) in the Willcox Basin, the groundwater basin containing the Richland area. Some of the new wells permitted by ADWR since the time of Lane's complaint are around 2,500 feet deep.
The Sulphur Springs Valley consists of two groundwater basins: the Willcox and Douglas Basins. The Douglas Basin contains an Irrigation Non-Expansion Area (INA), but this has done nothing to stop expanded groundwater use in the Douglas Basin, as there are absolutely no limits on groundwater use by those who own, or purchase, irrigation rights within the INA. Further, some large irrigation rights holders in the INA have been exploiting a loophole that allows them to transfer portions of existing irrigation rights over to properties within the INA that have no existing irrigation-- thus expanding irrigation in the irrigation non-expansion area.
According to ADWR records, the agency has received other complaints since 2015 regarding overuse of groundwater. Some of these complaints came from Douglas Basin residents, stating concern over groundwater depletion due to expanded large-scale agricultural water use in the Douglas INA. Records show that ADWR did respond to some of these complaints with assurances that there could be no irrigation expansion within the INA.
According to ADWR records, the agency has approved the drilling or deepening of at least 81 non-exempt wells in the Douglas INA since 2015. Some of these new wells in the INA reach 2,200 feet into the aquifer.
Under Arizona law, when ADWR received Lane's complaint regarding the depleted groundwater and earth fissures, they should have begun a process to determine whether the Willcox Basin should be designated as a groundwater Active Management Area (AMA).
Through the implementation of an AMA, common-sense limitations on groundwater use would have been put in place in order to try and conserve groundwater for both residences and agriculture. And, in all likelihood, had ADWR taken complaints from Lane and others seriously and begun the process of determining whether the formation of an AMA would be an appropriate solution, few of the subsequent high-production wells green-lighted by the agency would have been approved.
Under Arizona law (Arizona Revised Statutes 45-412), if the ADWR director finds that any one of three criteria exist in a groundwater basin, he may designate that basin (or even multiple adjacent basins) as AMAs. One of those criteria is a finding that "active management practices are necessary to preserve the existing supply of groundwater for future needs." Another criteria is a finding that "use of groundwater is resulting in actual or threatened water quality degradation."
And, the third criteria is something Lane explicitly warned ADWR of in 2015: a finding that "land subsidence or fissuring is endangering property or potential groundwater storage capacity."
The fact that ADWR ignored these warnings and complaints from the community further flies in the face of Arizona law, in that ARS 45-412 (c) states that the ADWR director "shall periodically review all areas that are not included within an active management area to determine whether such areas meet any of the criteria for active management areas as prescribed in this section."
While ADWR has not undertaken any review that has resulted in the designation of the Willcox or Douglas groundwater basins as AMAs, and while other some state agencies have hedged on the cause of earth fissures in Cochise County, Arizona Geological Survey Senior Research Scientist Michael Conway bluntly assessed the situation:
"Earth fissures result from basin subsidence driven by groundwater harvesting. Fissuring in Cochise County's Willcox area is exacerbated by the lack of regulations on groundwater overdrafts."
Arizona law provides a tool that residents of a groundwater basin can use to decide for themselves whether they want to create an Active Management Area to protect the future of their homes and communities.
Under ARS 45-415, if ten percent or more of the registered voters residing within a basin petition to hold an election to decide whether to create an AMA, the election will be held. And, if a majority of the voters in the basin vote to approve the AMA, it will be enacted.
We are undertaking a campaign, pursuant to ARS 45-415, to create AMAs in both the Willcox and Douglas groundwater basins.
To learn more about how we can regain control of our future through these AMAs, please read our AMA fact sheet https://www.arizonawaterdefenders.com/information , check out our campaign mission statement, and take a minute to review ADWR's resources on AMAs.
We will be circulating petitions for this soon. Please sign up for email updates through our email list, and join us on social media through our Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1801952969969477.