The article published in Wednesday’s edition by reporter Shar Porier reawakened the ongoing concern that the water table is dropping in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
Porier’s article covered a recent virtual meeting hosted by the Sierra Club’s Arizona Water Sentinels that pointed to fissures and land subsidence in areas of northeast Cochise County as evidence that the volume of groundwater being pumped cannot be sustained. Officials estimate from 1940 to 2015 between 4.9 and 6.2 million acre-feet has been pumped from the Willcox basin, annually lowering the water table.
Further evidence of the dramatic drop in groundwater levels are well depths. Records maintained by the Arizona Department of Water Resources show that in 2015, 123 new wells were completed in the Willcox basin, compared with 43 in 2010. The wells are also being drilled deeper. The average depth of all wells was 358 feet deeper in 2018 than it was in 2010.
Despite mounting evidence that the volume of pumping from the Willcox basin can’t be sustained and that an increasing number of property owners are losing their wells and can’t afford to drill deeper, there continues to be strong resistance to the idea of regulating consumption.
Farmers, ranchers, business and homeowners last gathered in 2015 to talk about how they could address the problem. They came up with a locally led proposal to manage water and conserve it on farms.
But their proposal failed to win enough support and in 2016 the effort was abandoned after fruitless meetings with members of the Arizona Legislature.
There has also been a lack of leadership from the Cochise County Board of Supervisors. District 3 board member Peggy Judd attempted to create awareness of the water issue earlier this year, hosting a series of seminars and inviting a variety of experts to discuss the status and history of the Willcox basin. The meetings never focused on the pressing issues facing residents and businesses in the community, instead starting with a discussion on the history of the basin dating back to the Pleistocene period and finishing with a webinar presentation on recharge projects, conservation easements and how working together to conserve water benefits all residents, businesses, agriculture and wildlife.
Unless water users in the basin somehow find a way to agree on the urgent need to regulate consumption, the prospect that the Willcox area will run out of water in the not-to-distant future is very real. Acreage being farmed in the region has expanded dramatically in recent years, increasing by 34 percent from 2012 to 2017, according to federal agriculture figures, growing from 65,277 acres to 87,417 acres.
As unwanted as regulation may be for farmers, business owners and some residents in the region, providing for a future that allows northeast Cochise County to survive and grow responsibility will require leadership and some form of authority that prevents the over-consumption of water.
We hope that happens before it’s too late.