“We live in the desert, let’s act like it” is the mantra of a coalescing statewide movement to protect and preserve Arizona’s groundwater since state legislators have not taken viable action on the declining water problem.
The Arizona Sustainable Water Network Coalition, the Cochise County Groundwater Guardians and others are combining conservation efforts through a possible citizen ballot initiative in 2024.
They say if the state legislators don’t adopt groundwater withdrawal regulations, there will be citizen–led efforts to hasten the development of a regulatory processes to address the problem as the Colorado River dries up and development, agriculture and other industries access groundwater.
On Feb. 17, ASWNC hosted a meeting in Phoenix with concerned people from across the state, including Cochise, Pinal, Mohave and Yuma counties, to find common ground on how to proceed.
Though there is a bill in the state Senate, Senate Bill 1306, organizers do not expect any forward movement on the groundwater situation.
The bill introduced by Sen. Sonny Borrelli of District 30 and Rep. Leo Biasiucci of District 5, both Republicans, adds long-term groundwater regulations for cities and counties and lays the foundation for zoning codes.
Such actions have been taken over the course of several years with no results, said Kristen Wolfe, the ASWNC moderator for the meeting. She said inaction in part is due to Rep. Gail Griffin, a Republican representing District 19, who chairs the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee.
Wolfe said, “We’ve convened a Sustainable Water Network, formerly Sustainable Water Workgroup, to propose policies that will prevent further degradation of Arizona’s rivers, lakes and springs and find new ways to balance Arizona’s water interests. We need more transparency. Groundwater is important to everyone and the depletion of it needs to be addressed. We want to close the loopholes in the Active Management Areas.”
Closing those loopholes would include an important number that has yet to be publicly released — how much water the industrial and agricultural wells actually draw from the thousands-of-years-old aquifers that cannot be sustained through rainfall and recharge.
Also being discussed is the groundwater connection to Arizona’s riparian areas, like the San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Gila and Salt rivers. Hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey have studied the connections and know the riparian areas are sustained by an upflow from groundwater. The groups want to include an environmental impact statement on how water withdrawal would affect wildlife.
Willcox resident Steve Kisiel with Cochise County Groundwater Guardians pointed out the Willcox basin was Arizona’s most endangered groundwater source. In his own experience, he saw his well drop 120 feet over a 20-year period even though his family did not live on the property for a number of years. His well went dry in 2013 and he said, “That was a wakeup call.”
His father, who was a hydrologist, lectured him for years about the ridiculousness of cotton fields in the desert as they drove from Tucson to Phoenix.
“This was 60 years ago and it was not sustainable back then,” he added.
Though an AMA was proposed for the Willcox basin, the voters did not approve the measure. That leaves an uncounted number of people questioning if they will have water for their small farms, backyard gardens or just regular residential use as the expansion of large agriculture continues unabated.
These large users of groundwater do not have to disclose their water use and folks are disturbed as they watch well water levels decline as industrial agriculture expands and digs deeper wells into the aquifer. The same goes for mineral extractions and even the Arizona Department of Transportation, whose road building uses groundwater for projects.
“For this reason, we’re building a People’s Power Campaign to take our demand directly to Corporate Ag to cease industrial mining of groundwater,” states the Guardians website. “The residents of Cochise County, working collectively, are protecting the groundwater for future generations. In the same way that people put financial assets into a trust so they can grow despite market ups and downs, as well as the temptation to spend them before they mature with the hope of leaving a legacy to their heirs, we want to place the groundwater into a similar instrument — a public trust — to assure a water-secure Cochise County down to the seventh generation. To quote the Code of the West, remember that some things aren’t for sale. Know where to draw the line.”
One of the problems the Willcox AMA proposal encountered was opposition to state control. The rural community and many agricultural concerns were suspicious of government intervention, Kisiel said.
A portion of SB 1306 called for placing some control over groundwater with the counties’ boards of supervisors, he said.
The bill would provide new funding sources and a locally–adaptable option for groundwater protection for those in rural Arizona with the Arizona Department of Water Resources providing support. It is seen as a better option to AMAs and would end unlimited pumping of groundwater.
Kisiel said Griffin killed a bill after a successful vote for a proposed added designation — a rural management area.
“She declared it a hostile amendment,” he said.
Griffin responded to questions and stated, “SB 1306 is anything but local control of our groundwater. It is a governor–appointed council that will put together a plan for our water. Thats right ... a non–elected body to make decisions for us. And, there would be no local vote of the property owners in the area.”
She did not approve of the stipulation that would take $50 million from Arizona Lottery money for the purpose of implementing programs for water management, regulations, withdrawal and use of groundwater.
She added, “The plan is not written. It’s a blank check. The city of Sierra Vista and Cochise County has done an awesome job of water conservation. They have won awards for their water conservation plans and continue to do so. We continue to plan on the needs for water conservation for the citizens in Cochise County, and the state of Arizona.”
Kisiel also found placing groundwater management under the Board of Supervisors problematic as the board has Supervisors Tom Crosby, who opposes government regulation, and Peggy Judd, who was opposed to the Willcox AMA initiative.
San Pedro River advocate Tricia Gerrodette said the groups enlisted the aid of legal counsel to prepare the bills that never made it past Griffin.
House Bill 2661 as presented last year would have allowed a county board of supervisors, at its sole discretion, to establish a Rural Management Area and a water-taxing district. Once established the RMA would be governed by an area council. The members of the council will not be elected by voters, but by recommendations from the supervisors to the governor, who will then appoint the members.
According to the bill, the BOS would designate a rural management area if it finds the use of groundwater is approaching a rate of withdrawal equal to or exceeding the current recharge rate and the physical indications of over pumping of water are documented or reliably observed. Documentation would include examples of declining water levels in wells, decreasing water levels or flow in hydrologically connected surface water or land subsidence, a real problem in the Willcox basin and to some degree in the Douglas basin.
Griffin and Supervisors Ann English and Judd opposed that bill.
Tom Prezelski with Rural Arizona Action, who worked on the RMA bill with others, said, “We need to figure out how to go around Griffin. Both houses now are friendly to such considerations. The county supervisors in Mohave County are conservatives, but they sound like radicals on water issues.”
Sanda Clark, who ran against Griffin for the House seat in November, said, “We need to prevent access to water for foreign interests, like the Saudis.”
Roz Switzer, member of the national organization Great Old Broads for Wilderness, noted there were water issues all over the state and suggested whatever is developed be applicable to the whole state.
Carey Meister of the Yuma Audubon Society, noted Yuma County’s groundwater supply is high in saline and would be “a critical problem” for them.
Tim Flood, with Arizona Rivers and the Arizona Riparian Council, echoed the need for an environmental impact assessment to prevent riparian areas from drying up and affecting wildlife dependent on them.
Roger McManus, with Friends of the Sonoran Desert, reiterated the need to know how much water remains in the state’s aquifers and the need for transparency so the public can be advised of the health of the systems.
Jerome Gray, with Groundwater Guardians, wants to build “a peaceful army to take demands to the legislature.”
A suggestion was to ask Gov. Katie Hobbs to invoke an executive order to help move the initiative to protect groundwater supplies.
Wolfe, the moderator, said, “There is a lot of expertise and experience in local environmental and community organizations. Conversations are happening everywhere. Over time, something will coalesce into meaningful groundwater protection. At the bare minimum, it puts legislators on notice that no action is not acceptable.”
The coalition will hold another meeting in April to continue talks.