SUNSITES — The last workshop of the Willcox Water Project on July 8 delved into the work done to preserve the San Pedro River and aquifer and how lessons learned could help the stop the decline of the Willcox Basin.

The workshops began in January due to complaints from residents whose wells were going dry in the northeastern part of the county, and fingers were being pointed at the large agricultural industry as the culprit. They complained to their Board of Supervisor representative Peggy Judd, who decided she and her community needed to learn about the water beneath their feet. She set up the Willcox Water Project.

Over the past six months, expert hydrologists, geologists, conservationists and archeologists presented a plethora of information on the history, geography, known intricacies of the area and the underground aquifer the Willcox Basin.

At the final workshop, Holly Richter, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Arizona water project director, and Mark Apel, Cochise County environmental projects coordinator, gave their presentations via Zoom on the situation in the San Pedro watershed and the projects completed and underway to try to get water back into the aquifer.

Through the Cochise Conservation and Recharge Network (CCRN), a partnership between the county, Sierra Vista, Bisbee, TNC and the Hereford Natural Resources Conservation District, work continues to recharge the aquifer. Lessons learned there could help planning of such projects in the Willcox Basin.

However, the San Pedro has a big head start with a focal point for recharge and decades of data collected thanks to a congressional order and a desire to save the economic engine, Fort Huachuca. Through the Upper San Pedro Partnership, an organization of 21 local, state and federal governments and agencies and Fort Huachuca, groundbreaking studies and data helped provide a way forward to begin recharge efforts for years.

While Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) has done a few studies on groundwater depletion and fissures caused by the collapse of the ground due to the declining water table in the Willcox Basin, there is still much to be learned about the movement of the water underground.

So, while there is much to be learned about the Willcox Basin, the projects completed by the county over the past six years in the San Pedro watershed have shown there are measures to be taken to help offset the amount of water being pumped out of the aquifer.

Actually, the first recharge project was completed in 2002 by Sierra Vista when the city began a sewage treatment upgrade and the Environmental Operations Park, a now bird friendly habitat, was born to help recharge the aquifer. The effluent is treated before it goes into the ponds. Now, the CCRN is invetsigating the possibility of piping some of the treated effluent to another location for recharge to help the river.

In 2014, the county was able to turn part of a 285-acre parcel, set to be a subdivision before the economic recession hit, into the first surface waterflow recharge system in the state.

In 2016, with the help of the Hereford Natural Resources Conservation District (HNRCD) and heritage ranchers Jack and John Ladd, the CCRN built a vast sediment basin to not only stop the erosion of a major wash which runs into the river, but to slow sheetflow from monsoonal rains and allow sediment to settle out before reaching the river.

“There’s been some interesting work in the San Pedro basin over the years,” noted Richter. “Groundwater is mysterious in nature — how it moves, how rainfall affects it. It’s very complex and we can’t see exactly how it works.”

In the San Pedro watershed, rain runs from the mountains to the lowest point in the landscape, which in this case is the San Pedro River, she said.

When groundwater is pumped and not replenished naturally, it creates a cone of depression which creates problems for other well owners and the river, she explained. The retirement of agricultural wells helped counteract the losses.

“We want to put surface water back into the aquifer at certain points to offset that effect,” she continued. “But, it takes a certain soil to allow the water to percolate back into the ground. We have to find those places where recharge makes the most sense.”

Apel said, “We have to get the biggest bang for our buck. The EOP is proof that the concept of lagoons and wetlands works and now it’s creating a “water mound of deep, moist soil for miles around.”

When asked if the quality of the runoff water is polluted, Apel said the county does not have such monitors at the Palominas Recharge Project, but ADWR does check for E.coli and pollutants.

As for water lost to impervious surfaces, which creates the vast runoff and floods, there are areas outside of Sierra Vista where CCRN is looking into for more projects, said Richter.

“Urban enhanced runoff can be a problem,” she noted. “We want to keep that water off the streets to prevent flooding. So, there’s another source of water for possible recharge.”

Still another source of recharge may come from the treated effluent from Bisbee, added Apel. The city and county entered a five year agreement which allows the county to purchase up to 200-acre feet a year of effluent. The plan is to pipe it from Bisbee more than nine miles away, a massive project in itself, and get it as close to the river as possible to help the declining flow near the border.

“Cochise County is committed to robust recharge projects,” said Apel. “The results will help us design future projects. Every time we collect data, we get a better view of what’s possible.”

When asked about the problems with earth fissures in areas of the northeastern part of the county, caused by the collapse of ground above a declining underground water source, Richter replied once the groundwater was gone, there is no way to fill it back up to raise the land surface.

She suggested determining where the problem of groundwater decline is most severe. The valley would need monitoring stations in various locations to measure ground to water levels and collect the data to determine the best practice for management needs.

Apel added the rates of sheetflow should be determined and the best places for recharge explored.

Next stepsA group of 20 stakeholders was originally formed of area residents, but only five showed up for the first meeting, said Judd in an interview.

Those five were John Shaver, Realty Executives, Allan Sykes, former farmer, Bill Ryan, Stotz Equipment, Moiria White, Riverview Dairies, and Steve Marlett, retired teacher and ecologist. Retired University of Arizona Graham County Cooperative Extension Service director Bill Brandau moderates the meetings.

“I think they are the ones most determined to make it work,” said Judd who acted as secretary for the meeting. “But, they realized some representation was lacking – like small farmers and small businesses such as owners of hotels and restaurants.”

So, some members may be changed to include a wider representation of the communnity, including “skeptics.”

Judd is excited Brandau was willing to help. “He has no real connection to the Sulphur Springs Valley.”

His goal is to come up with three to five plans to take action as quickly as possible with water conservation measures at the top of the list, added Judd.

“He said, ‘When we’re done, we’ll just be starting.’ That meant something to me,” Judd noted.

“The most important thing to me that I learned was there is plenty of water right now, maybe not for 200 years, maybe not for 100,” she added. “How we use it will determine that.”

Meetings of the stakeholders will be held in Willcox over the next three months, but are not open to the public. A synopsis of the meetings will be posted on the Willcox Water Project website, she added.

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