WILLCOX — Last year, Cochise County Supervisor Peggy Judd, with the support of her fellow supervisors Tom Borer and Ann English, began a series of workshops on the problems and concerns residents in her district were having with dwindling water supplies in the Willcox Basin.
Many residents in the northeastern part of the county are experiencing problems with their wells going dry and having to dig deeper wells. While some people were able to take on the high cost of digging deeper wells, there were many who could not. Fingers were pointed at the growing industrial agriculture industry, which has drilled wells to 1,000 or 2,000 feet, as a source of the problem.
Judd formed the Willcox Water Project and brought in geologists, conservationists and archeologists to help people understand the nature of the aquifer that sustains them and what may help alleviate some of the issues.
Over the past few months, a committee of stakeholders met to talk about possible solutions to the problem. On the committee are Bill Ryan, Alan Seitz, Moiria White with Riverside Dairies, Ryleigh Terry, Shawna Gappmayer, Mark Apel, John Shaver and Steve Marlett.
In an interview, Marlett, who has been in the Sulphur Springs Valley for 31 years, said many people, even municipalities, could lose their supplies of water if consumption continues at its current rate.
“We’ve got to have some restrictions,” he said. “Volunteer compliance only goes so far.”
There is much interest in recharge projects within the Willcox Playa, he said. Stormwater coming down from the surrounding mountains tends to collect in the low–lying playa. Underlying the playa is a think layer of clay that does not allow the collected water to percolate down to the aquifer. Instead, it evaporates. By installing dry wells that carry the water underground past the clay layer, water could make it into the aquifer.
Other methods to save water in households and farms are rainwater harvesting and graywater systems that relieve stress on the aquifer. Removal of mesquite, the taproots of which can go as deep as 200 feet to reach water, could help. Still, Marlett and the committee knows those efforts along with low-flow water fixtures and xeriscaping are not enough to have any impact.
During committee talks, it was suggested some farmers could limit themselves to grow just one crop per season instead of two. Marlett said that would only be a go if every farmer agreed to follow the restriction. Some ranchers could agree to just water one pasture in a season, but again, that would work only if all the ranchers agreed to follow it.
“Homeowners need to be aware of the water situation,” he continued. “It can cost $20,000 to $40,000 to drill a deeper well, depending on how deep you have to go to hit a reliable water supply.”
Though Riverview has helped residents and farmers surrounding the dairy, others in the Kansas Settlement area, and now the Turkey Creek area, are not as fortunate as wells dry up.
Further concerns come from the ever–worsening drought predictions due to climate change, Marlett added. Even though there might be some relief with stronger monsoons, as hot weather increases the stress on the aquuifer will only grow.
Next week the Arizona Department of Water Resources will begin another study to see how water levels have changed in certain wells in the basin. The last study was completed in 2015, before Riverview expanded, he said.
“We’ll see how much has changed since then,” Marlett said. “I look to Kingman for a comparison. They are in a dire situation. They have overused their water supply and are now in crisis mode. I don’t want to see that happen here.”
Judd expressed her thanks to the hundreds of participants in the Willcox Water Project seminars and the presenters who contributed to the education of citizens.
“This is something that we will all be involved in for a long time,” said Judd. “Our greatest appreciation is extended to Bill Brandau from the Gila Valley who led our team of business owners, farmers, ranchers, community leaders, local FFA students and residential well owners as our stakeholder meeting moderator. His skills and decorum was essential to the success, but as he says, ‘This is only the beginning.’ I look forward to many great efforts and partnerships taking place with recharge, water usage and conservation in the near future, here where it matters most, to the residents of the Sulphur Springs Valley.”
Another public meeting will be announced when a date can be confirmed.