COCHISE COUNTY — Over the past two years, there has been a considerable rise in concern of the Willcox and Douglas basins as ground water levels drop and wells go dry.

Over the past year, two grassroots efforts to deal with the growing aquifer problems arose. One is seeking to form Active Management Areas (AMA) in the Willcox and Douglas basins and the other was a small 60 square mile Chiricahua Water District, which has recently dissolved.

Now, a third proposal which seeks to establish a water district encompassing some 400 square miles from Interstate 10 in Willcox south to Elfrida serving an estimated 2,500 residents and 4,000 vacant parcels.

According to Board of Supervisors member Peggy Judd said, “Farmers using water in all of these communities and who reside in each community respectively were concerned that current expansion of farming, not just their own, would affect a broader area.”

The Southeastern Arizona Water District (SEAZWD) was formed in an effort to relieve the water problems residents with wells have encountered. Many homes in the Willcox and Douglas Basins have watched their water levels drop in their wells and even going completely dry. Without the financial means to drill deeper wells at a cost of over $10,000 depending on depth to water, they are forced to haul in water or sell the land.

“Those of us who live in the desert have a deep appreciation for the life–giving nature of water. We know the pain of a light monsoon and the blessing of a good monsoon. We know that communities are built around families, and families need reliable and affordable water in the home. Communities thrive where water supply is secure,” states the SEAZWD website.

Right now, an interim board of directors is overseeing the district effort formed by a local group of individuals dedicated to the development of a water system. They are assisted by engineers, attorneys, and USDA Rural Development. The interim board of directors includes Courtney Adcock, Terry Berke, Gary Fehr, John Hart and Fred Zamora.

They along with other supporters, will conduct a sign–up campaign to gather signatures within the boundaries of the proposed water system beginning at the first public meeting January 14 in Elfrida. People who do not want to be included in the district can decline to be a part of the district.

Individuals can continue to maintain private wells if they desire. The water district will not “buy out” or otherwise compensate owners for existing wells.

Currently, SEAZWD is working on a way people who want to continue using their well water, but want to be hooked up to the system, can do so without the monthly charge. They will be charged the $300 annual assessment. The interim Board of Directors is working toward a plan whereby those participating initially, but not taking water, will pay only the assessment and not a monthly water usage bill.

Organizers say a water district will resolve concerns by providing “sustainable, domestic water from community wells 1,000 feet deep” and bringing the water via new water mains and lines to the homes of those who sign on to the district. This will be “a significantly lower cost than that of owning and maintaining a well.”

Homeowners who opt into the district pay a yearly assessment, estimated at $300, for the length of the 30-year U.S. Department of Agriculture loan, and a monthly water usage fee of $45 to $70 depending on water use. This is significantly lower than the costs of owning and maintaining a well.”

Those who want to stay with their well water for now, but support the district, will be able to join at a later date. They will have to pay $350 for a district engineering plan analysis of the capacity of the system and $6,700 to connect their homes to the main water lines. The customer must pay up front the cost that was assessed to original project participants, plus a portion of the project costs that were not assessed. Currently, that is estimated at approximately $12,000. The amount will be adjusted annually by the Board of Directors.

According to Supervisor Peggy Judd, “A water district will protect it from state oversight as the board of directors is made up of community members from the water district. They will govern the system, avoiding the need for the state to step in and regulate water.”

SEAZWD says the district will ensure future water availability so domestic water will be available for “decades to come.” Just how many decades are unclear and some residents in the Sulphur Springs Valley say this is not an adequate assurance of water availability. The district will not stop or inhibit the pumping of water for agriculture which has been blamed for dropping the water levels in the aquifers for several years.

These agricultural water use concerns were expressed during a series of water workshops called the Willcox Water Project last year in which the community members expressed their feelings of uncertainty and even down right fear that if the agricultural mining of groundwater continues at the current level, they will end up with dry wells and useless land.

When fissures appear, like those in the northeastern part of the county earlier this year which resulted in road closures and disruptions, the anxiety was heightened.

ADWR staff stated fissures are the result of over-pumping the aquifer. The loss of water causes the ground above it to collapse. U.S. Route 191 in Sunsites and U.S. Route 80 in St. David both needed extensive work to backfill the dramatic fissures this summer, though the heavy rains experienced this monsoon could have assisted the road damage.

The initial elected board of directors will serve a four year term. They are responsible for setting policies for district operations, hiring a manager or management company, setting budgets and rates, retaining consultants and professionals including legal, engineering, finance monitoring and approving capital improvements during monthly or quarterly meetings.

Signatures of residents who support the water district will be available at the Jan. 14 public meeting in Elfrida.

Is an AMA a better choice?Earlier this year, a group of citizens in both the Willcox and Douglas basins took it upon themselves to find a solution and limit agriculture’s water use. Called the Arizona Water Defenders (AzWD), the members started collecting signatures to form Active Management Areas (AMA) in both groundwater basins.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) oversees AMAs, though there is an advisory board of directors appointed by the governor. Residential wells and other wells pumping less than 35 gallons per minute are not subject to any metering or regulation under an AMA.

Beau Hodai speaking on behalf of AzWD said, “While we suspect this proposed water district, which is clearly being advanced primarily by the Riverview mega dairy, is an attempt to ameliorate public outrage over Riverview’s gross overuse of our water resources, there is no reason that people cannot support both the water district and creation of groundwater AMAs here.

“We’d like to point out, though, that the proposed water district does nothing to protect local smaller and moderate-sized farmers, ranchers, or other businesses, from the negative impacts of groundwater overuse. Our proposed AMAs would protect these local growers and businesses, through common sense limitations on water use by heavy users, like Riverview.”

AzWD organizers’ goal is to achieve “sustainable use of water and fair access for everyone — residences, schools, local agriculture, businesses and municipalities alike. Without water, none of us have any future here in the Sulphur Springs Valley. This campaign is one hundred percent local and non-partisan. This is about reclaiming our future together and will be a meaningful step that we, as a community, can take toward saving our residential, small farm/ranch and community wells. This will enable us to reclaim control over our future in this valley and in our communities.”

Hodai said out of state interests are flooding into the valley because there are no restrictions on the amount of water that can be withdrawn making Cochise County a prime location.

“They are dropping wells and sucking up a lot of water,” Hodai stated.

Though there is an irrigation non–expansion area (INA) within the Douglas basin, he said the designation “has done absolutely nothing to protect our groundwater.

“All the creation of the Douglas INA accomplished was to allow the grandfathering of existing irrigation rights of growers who had wells in use at the time of the INA’s creation in 1980. Wealthy out–of–state growers have entered the INA by simply buying up farms with existing irrigation rights. They may then drop as many new wells as they like, some of which are now up to 2,200 feet deep, and use groundwater without any limitation whatsoever. Large growers in the INA have even been transferring portions of ‘grandfathered’ irrigation rights over to parcels within the INA with no existing irrigation rights — thereby expanding irrigation within the irrigation non-expansion area.”

In an AMA, there are limitations applied to groundwater mining of “high-production wells which pump 35 gallons per minute or more, such as those used by the mega farms and nut orchards flooding into the valley.

So far, the collection of signatures have gone well, according to Hodi, but he did not want to release the number they have gathered for the Willcox AMA and the Douglas Basin AMA. They have until July 7, 2022, to turn in the petitions in order for it to go on the 2022 ballot. They continue to gather signatures for the AMAs.