BISBEE – Over the past few months, many residents who live in the Willcox and Douglas groundwater basins have been voicing their concerns and fears about the availability of water as wells go dry and fissures open up across the northeastern part of Cochise County.

Last year, Board of Supervisors member Peggy Judd, who represents the people of Willcox and the surrounding area, started the Willcox Water Project as more and more people voiced their concerns to her. WWP held four workshops that covered the history, hydrology and geology of the Willcox basin. Fissures and a declining aquifer were discussed by experts from a number of state agencies, including the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

When the workshops ended, a stakeholders committee was formed last year to take the information and use it to proffer measures to counteract the aquifer’s issues. Nothing has come of the committee’s meetings, at least as what the public can see on the WWP website.

Over the past few months, a dedicated group of people decided to do something to prevent their loss of access to the water supply and have gathered diverse support from across the eastern half of the county, known as Sulphur Springs Valley, including the Douglas aquifer.

The Arizona Water Defenders was the brainchild of William McElroy, a Willcox resident, who set up the website that drew people in who shared his concern and wanted to have their voices heard. That includes people who faced dry wells, a declining water table and choosing between living in old family homes and on old family farms with no water or selling their heritages, which they would prefer to pass on to family members as it was passed to them.

Tara Morrow lives on a small farm off Parker Ranch Road between both Riverview dairy operations, which has deepened its wells. She and her husband, Rocky, have two children, Colt, 9, and Zachary, 15. Both are horse people.

“I’m on a well share and we have to check the well water level to see if it needs to be deepened,” Morrow said. “This year I’ve noticed a change in water pressure. The rancher who raises cattle that lives behind me said he’s going to have to drop both of his cattle wells.

“It seems like I see new pivots all the time. I’m not opposed to agriculture, but I am opposed to no caps on water usage, the endless expansion of it.”

The main source of complaint is Riverview Dairy, an operation with home offices in Minnesota, but Morrow pointed out there were other industrial-size farms taking advantage of the lack of any regulation when it comes to groundwater.

“People can’t afford $50,000 to sink their wells,” she said. “The average Joe is losing water. They have to sell their farms. We know the water will not always be there. So, you’ve got to stand up and protect your family.”

Mark Spencer, who owns land in the Cochise Stronghold area, pointed out a similar effort in 2015 led to hard feelings, threats and arguments.

“Some of the public meetings didn’t go well, people got discouraged, and the effort died,” he said. “Now, we’re trying again in a more organized manner.”

He, as well, has seen evidence of a declining water table as fissures are opening up and land subsidence is evident in the Sunsites and Dragoon areas. This year more have opened up and it concerns him.

Spencer wrote in an opinion in the Herald/Review: “When larger agricultural operations begin to drill an almost endless number of irrigation wells and then pump unsustainable amounts of water from an aquifer in volumes that were unimaginable even 50 years ago, that activity has an effect on that aquifer for everyone who depends upon it for the use, value and enjoyment of their land. You see, rights have never been absolute, not even in America. They must be balanced against our neighbor’s equally important rights.”

Both basins have increased agricultural pumping from new orchards and grain fields, which residents see as causing the water declines in wells. Members of the group believe there needs to be some sort of regulation to allow “a common sense limitations on industrial agricultural use,” said Beau Hodai, spokesperson of the AzWD.

“We have all seen the incredible insurgence of out-of-state growers into our valley in recent years,” Hodai said. “They come to exploit our groundwater because there is absolutely no limit on groundwater use here. As their water use has surged, our residential, small business and community wells have started to run dry.”

Many in the Sunsites, Richland, Kansas Settlement and Turkey Creek areas hold Riverview Dairy and other large out-of-state agricultural industries responsible for the decline in wells.

As fissures continue to open up and land continues to subside, the communities are growing more concerned as Arizona Geological Survey staff investigate them. Over the past month, fissures have closed federal, state and county roads due to damage.

In a virtual meeting, Mike Conway, AzGS geologist and outreach specialist, noted the decline in groundwater levels create subsidence and fissures. The fissure seen on the surface actually begins at the groundwater water level 300 to 400 feet below the surface. As rain seeps into the fissures, they expand and carry silt and harmful chemicals, like fertilizers and pesticides, down into the aquifer.

Four members of AzWD formed a formal standing committee with the Arizona secretary of state and submitted applications to take out petitions for signatures. Representing the Douglas basin are Ash Dahlke, chairwoman; Rebekah Wilce, treasurer; and Hodai. Cheryl Knott is representing the Willcox basin.

The petition states, “To designate the Douglas Groundwater Basin as an Active Management Area as authorized by the Arizona Groundwater Code, ARS 45-415. Upon petition by ten percent of the registered voters residing within the boundaries of the proposed active management area, an election shall be held on the designation of this basin as an active management area.”

The petition for the Willcox region will list Willcox as the designated basin.

The state requires the signatures of 10% of registered voters to get the petitions on the ballot, and many in the group think they will not have much trouble gathering them.

“The creation of these AMAs will be a meaningful step that we, as a community, can take toward saving our residential, small farm and ranch and community wells,” Hodai said. “This will enable us to reclaim control over our future in this valley and in our communities.”

What is an AMA?

In 1980, state legislators passed the Arizona Groundwater Code when they “recognized the need to aggressively manage the state’s finite groundwater resources to support the growing economy. Areas with heavy reliance on mined groundwater were identified and designated as Active Management Areas (AMAs). Each AMA carries out its programs in a manner consistent with these goals while considering and incorporating the unique character of each AMA and its water users.”

There are five AMAs (Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal County, Tucson and Santa Cruz County) which are subject to regulation pursuant to the Groundwater Code with the goal of reaching safe yield – water out equals water in.

The governor appoints board members to a Groundwater Users Advisory Council for six years. The board makes a plan which must include “mandatory conservation programs for all persons withdrawing, distributing or receiving groundwater designed to achieve reductions in withdrawals of groundwater.”

Public meetings are held by the council to create the plan.

The AMA does not control water use of wells that produce 35 gallons per minute or less and that covers most residential users.

Under the AMA, all new well requests to ADWR will have to go through an extensive process and will require well-impact studies and well-spacing requirements and would be subject to ADWR approval, per adopted goals management plans for the AMAs.

“There are currently no groundwater protections in place here, which is exactly why so many out-of-state growers have come here and exploited our groundwater,” Hodai said. “What they need, they import, like jobs, and they have shown that they are more than happy to export our water in the form of nuts, feed, and dairy products so that they can make a buck.

“The creation of these AMAs 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. In an AMA, common sense limitations are applied to groundwater use of high production wells capable of pumping more than 35 gallons a minute, such as those used by the mega farms and nut orchards flooding into the valley.”

Even though the Douglas basin is mostly in a designated Irrigation Non-Expansion Area, property owners there are also concerned with the vast increase of nut orchards and grain fields. A nut orchard lies just east of the fissure that opened up on Jefferson Road last week.

“As we all have seen, the Douglas INA has done absolutely nothing to protect our groundwater,” said Hodai.

Committee members speak

“I know a lot of us are reluctant to have any more government influence in our lives,” Wilce said. “But we have all tried asking nicely. We’ve asked big water users to be more responsible. We’ve asked our county supervisors to help us out. We’ve asked our lawmakers to do anything at all that might help.

“We asked nicely, and I don’t think we got anything to show for it. Last I checked, peoples’ wells are running dry left and right, and the outlook for our homes and communities keeps getting worse.”

Sunsites area resident Knott has also witnessed the decline of water in neighboring wells and said, “While driving through Cochise County, it is not uncommon to see a new field being bladed for new agriculture and hear about families who have been here for generations needing to move because of their wells have run dry. I think it’s important for everyone to see that as long as the groundwater problems persist, people will step up to work on solutions. We chose the path to add an AMA where everyone in the basins has the opportunity to have their voice heard through a vote in November 2022.”

She saw for sale signs on large tracts of land along Cochise Stronghold Road and Dragoon Road for years. Then suddenly, they all sold, the land was cleared and nut trees were planted.

“My sense is that most people, including the people with the power to improve the situation, are well aware of what’s happening,” Knott said. “There seem to be some piecemeal, small scale, mostly voluntary efforts being discussed lately. So, it’s not that they haven’t listened and don’t know. But there’s a lack of vision and a lack of will on the part of some who have the power and the resources to protect our groundwater.

“Lists of names do demonstrate that there’s a lot of concern about our groundwater, but they alone don’t produce concrete solutions. The beauty of the AzWD approach is that it’s very straightforward — sign the petition to put an AMA on the ballot and let the people decide with their vote. There are already state laws to protect groundwater, they just don’t apply to our area because we’re not in an AMA. The Arizona Department of Water Resources manages the AMAs, but there are built-in ways for residents to be involved in shaping the form that our AMA will take.”

Dahlke, a Bisbee resident, said, “We are a non–partisan group petitioning for common–sense water protections and when we have the chance to talk to folks while petitioning, I think we will be able to express what is happening across the basin, our path forward and gain their support.”

She was not aware of any wells going dry in the Douglas basin, but she has heard people’s concerns with a declining water table, even though it is designated as an INA.

“Publicly standing up for what you believe in is not always an easy task, but when it comes down to it, I need to practice what I preach in the classroom,” Dahlke said. “I encourage students to care for their communities, to be accountable for their actions and to get involved when they see something that needs to be changed.

“When it comes to the petitions, getting the ball rolling was not an easy task. The petition for a ballot initiative for an AMA has not been attempted before, so ensuring all of the appropriate ducks were in a row took a lot of research and time. Filling the petitions was a huge milestone for us and I’m proud of the AZWD team.”

Supervisors comments

Judd said she would not support an AMA.

“The AMA has proven to be mostly effective for the large counties and urban sprawl type development, but it was never designed to work in exclusively rural communities,” she said. “We do not have infrastructure and sourcing such as canal systems, CAP and rivers in place to support such an effort. This restriction would shut down most any chance of new economic opportunities in eastern Cochise county. When they had finished the AMA, Gov. Babbitt turned to John Kyl and asked, ‘What about the rurals?’ The answer was ‘not now.’ Clearly the AMA tool was not designed for us.”

Ann English, who represents the Douglas basin, said, “I would have to know a lot more about their agenda before I would support this initiative. I am not sure what they propose. I just have not figured out what they want from an AMA being forced on them and controlled by ADWR and the Legislature. The state of Arizona says it is in control of groundwater now and the Legislature can make rules and regulations as they determine.”

Supervisor Tom Crosby did not respond to questions.