BISBEE — During a three-day Arizona Growing Water Smart seminar, hosted by the Babbitt Center for Land and Water and The Sonoran Institute, a Cochise County team of five people took advantage of expertise and lessons learned to conserve more water.
Supervisor Peggy Judd, Planner II Christine McLachlan, Environmental Projects Coordinator Mark Apel, Deputy County Attorney Kris Carlson and Benson city planner Michelle Johnson took what they learned, and building on the Willcox Basin problems they knew, brainstormed a number of ideas and formed an action plan.
Though some ideas were more wish than reality, they did come up with some sound steps to moving forward with a countywide water conservation plan, like the Sierra Vista Subwatershed, and possible recharge projects in the Willcox Basin, though on a far smaller scale than the two existing county flood control and recharge projects in Palominas.
In an interview, Apel explained the rainwater from the Chiricahua Mountains, the Little Dragoons, the Pinaleño Mountains and the Dos Cabezas range drains mostly to the 2,369-acre dry lake, the Willcox Playa. The rainwater that collects there during the monsoon and other rain events mostly evaporates as an underlying layer of thick, dense clay prevents the water from infiltrating down into the aquifer.
“Once the water hits the playa, it just evaporates,” he said. “We could capture that water.”
He said dry wells could be used to move that water down past the clay obstacle and eventually it would reach the aquifer. Just how much water could be recharged still has to be studied.
Another idea is to get with property owners, farmers and ranchers to set up their own flood control projects to slow down the flow of storm water, which would prevent erosion and soil loss as well as allow it to infiltrate down to the aquifer.
Simple weir structures could be installed using available rocks on the land and running them crosswise to the downhill flow or across a wash. Sediment collects between the rocks and a sort of dam forms, preventing erosion channels from growing into ravines. Weirs also provide a footing for vegetation, which also helps slow flood water and allows it to seep in the ground.
Apel said county floodplain staff could walk the properties of people who want to give such things a try and lend them advice on placement.
“Recharge is a part of flood control, and the county should adopt recharge projects formally into the floodplain regulations,” he said. “Maricopa County has put recharge of effluent for new development projects in place and it’s an integral part of their flood control plan.”
Sierra Vista has been using the treated wastewater it generates for years and it has had a great impact on recharging the aquifer, he continued.
“We hope other cities will do that,” Apel said. “Benson uses its wastewater for golf courses. Willcox wastewater infiltrates through its wetlands. Nobody knows about Tombstone. We should look into that. It may be they don’t have enough staff or funds to develop projects to use its effluent.
“All we can do is advise and consult. We can point them toward grants and the Southeastern Association of Governments could help as well.”
Though Supervisor Ann English agrees water conservation policy is appropriate countywide, she is reluctant for the county to take on more funding for aquifer replenishment projects like those in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed. It had substantial buy-in from federal agencies and conservation organizations.
However, there was risk of losing Fort Huachuca due to the impact of aquifer decline on the protected San Pedro River and San Pedro National Conservation Area. Federally mandated water reductions had to be made in order to keep the fort in place as it is the largest contributor to the economies of the county, Sierra Vista and surrounding areas. No such need or financial help exists elsewhere in the county.
“Wastewater remediation always sounded like a good idea to me,” English said in an interview.
“The main thing is for people to realize is conservation is not a cure in and of itself,” she noted. “But, people do need to be mindful of wasting water, like letting it run while you brush your teeth.”
English pointed out Douglas’ treated wastewater is already spoken for as it goes back to Mexico to irrigate fields as part of an international agreement.
While there is talk of piping Bisbee’s treated effluent about nine miles to the San Pedro River, she is not sure if it would be worth the cost.
“I think that is foolish,” she said. “I’m all for passing along information to the other municipalities so they can make decisions for themselves.”
The Bisbee pipeline idea has already hit a snag as Apel said there was one ranching family who has flat out refused to let the pipe cross his ranchland.
The Ladd family experienced a small cattle die off a few years ago due to a toxic algae bloom in Greenbush Draw. Bisbee does pass its treated effluent to the draw, but it was not known whether the problem was caused by Bisbee effluent or waste from Mexico that leaks northward across the border in Naco, Ariz. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality was not able to determine where the problem originated.
The suggestion by the team to hire WaterWise staff to go into communities and schools to educate people on the simple ways they can make a difference and save water was not received well by English. In the past, she felt WaterWise staff did not reach out beyond Sierra Vista often enough to reach other county communities. Before a new person is to be hired, she wants to see how effective WaterWise is and how the agent has impacted the conservation of water.
In an interview with Supervisor Peggy Judd, she expressed her support of WaterWise staff for Willcox and Benson and hoped the University of Arizona Extension Program would be able to place interns there to work with the populace.
“I know the county can’t afford to do it,” Judd added. “But it would be good to have someone local to the community so the people trust them and buy into the conservation program.”
Judd talked about alternate, low-water-using crops that county farmers could grow in place of more water-guzzling crops. Still, she noted the farmers and Riverview Dairy had to grow what they needed to feed their animals and make a living.
“It’s hard to get farmers to change crops,” she added.
She joked about a suggestion Carlson made about growing agave in the county and having its own brand of tequila, like the vineyards and their wines up around Willcox.
“We just don’t have the same dry climate as Mexico,” she laughed. “But, it was a fun suggestion.”
Hops has become a popular crop as microbreweries across the state have grown and it’s possible new farmers could be persuaded to plant it as a water-saving cash crop, she said.
The Natural Resources Conservation District in Willcox could offer help on which low-water-use crops to grow, she suggested. The group helped a farmer get new irrigation pivots at no cost because the new system used far less water than what he had. There is a tradeoff. People who receive such grants are required to follow some other wildlife conservation projects, like building nesting boxes.
She approves of a regulatory overlay for the Willcox Basin and all of Cochise County.
“But, we don’t have a big city like Sierra Vista in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed,” she said. “I don’t think we could get that kind of investment in our area. The county bought land and retired agricultural wells. That’s not going to happen here.”
Judd pointed out the Willcox water system draws from wells only 17-feet deep. The farther out one goes from Willcox toward the mountains, the wells are far deeper because of the topography and change in elevation.
An attempt is underway to form a water district to help people whose wells have gone dry along State Route 181 and U.S. Route 191. Riverview Dairy plays a big role in developing the system, said Judd. Chiricahuawater.org was formed to see how viable a district would be to the community.
“They do have some concrete support,” said Judd. “If it’s a public system, people will have to pay tax on the district, but if it’s private, they may not.”
A private social media group, Arizona Water Defenders, sees it differently. The leaders say a water district will not stop the overwhelming loss of water used by Riverview Dairy and their grain fields and the residents will have to bear the cost unfairly. Their wells would still be providing water if the dairy had not expanded, they say.
No matter what form water conservation takes in the Willcox Basin and the rest of the Sulphur Springs Valley, something needs to happen to alleviate people’s fears and concerns, Judd said.
“Our water is going away and we want it to be here for future generations,” she said. “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t make people feel guilty. We want to do all we can to keep our kids here, keep ranching and farming here.”
She sees rainwater harvesting as a viable way to help people conserve groundwater rather than digging deeper wells.
However, the weather has not been accommodating to those who do harvest rainwater and the dramatic drop in rainwater last year taught a number of people who rely solely on rainwater a serious lesson.
Judd also talked about a former measure taken by the county to start a well rescue program some years ago. The idea was to gather donations from businesses to allow people to dig deeper wells or form a water delivery system. Though there was one agricultural business willing to donate to the fund, it was not willing to fund just any well owner in the county. They wanted the funds to specifically for the people in the Willcox Basin.
The Willcox Water Project, started by Judd in response to complaints of wells going dry, is moving forward to attain nonprofit status. A series of workshops brought in experts in hydrology, geology, water conservation and aquifer history to educate the community at large about the problem with maintaining its water supply. The workshops were well attended and many issues were aired.
Through the Willcox Water Project, Judd has high hopes funding can be found to help alleviate the water crisis and assist those most impacted by the declining aquifer.