Cochise Lake

Lower water levels at Cochise Lake, south of Willcox, is just one local indication of the 14-year drought throughout Arizona. Pearce-Sunsites area residents are calling upon the State Legislature to address the subject of adjudicated water rights.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on the subject of adjudicated water rights in the State of Arizona.


COCHISE COUNTY -- The president of the Pearce/Sunsites Chamber of Commerce has called upon the Arizona State Legislature to immediately begin a study “for the adjudication of water rights in the State of Arizona.”

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one in Phoenix wants to talk about is getting ready to wreak havoc on our aquifers and reservoirs,” Murray J. McClelland said in his Aug. 28 e-mail to State Sen. Gail Griffin, and Reps. David Gowan and David Stevens.

He went on to say that Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the Colorado River Compact system, providing water to more than 40 million people in five western states – including 80-percent of Arizona’s population.

He added that it is also Southern Nevada’s primary source of hydro-electric power.

McClelland refers to an Aug. 12 “Fox News Latino” article, “Lake Mead’s 14-year Drought Drops Water Levels to Historic Lows,” which states that “the lake is expected to drop to 1,080 feet above sea level this year — down almost the width of a football field from a high of 1,225 feet in 1983. A projected level of 1,075 feet in January 2016 would trigger cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada.”

McClelland said, “One point that this article does not address is that if the water level in Lake Mead drops approximately another 35 to 40 feet in elevation, the petcocks (valves) that supply the gravitational force of water to turn the turbines at Hoover Dam will be of no use.”

“Here in Cochise County, we just learned that the State of Arizona has possibly granted four new agricultural permits that may have the capability to pull 325,000 gallons (one acre foot) of water in a matter of 3.3 hours each,” said McClelland, adding,  “This is a small area that already contains highway warning signs of earth fissures.”

He said that his friend and Sunsites area resident Mark Spencer, recently took “aerial photographs of the fissure and the surrounding area so that it can be monitored and hopefully measured as the new wells come online and the aquifer continues to deplete, causing the fissures to expand and deepen.” 

Local property owner Lynn Haber, who describes herself  as having lived “on and off in Pearce since 1997,” told the Range News about her observations over the years.

“I have watched the water tables decline. I spent many days horseback riding up in the Cochise Stronghold. I have witnessed the Stronghold tanks going dry and not refilling. The Cochise Spring has gone dry for good. I have watched the huge oak trees wither and die over time because their roots can no longer reach the deepening water table.” she said.

In his Aug. 28 e-mail to the state legislators, McClelland said that several families in the valley have had to either deepen their domestic wells at an average cost of about $20,000, or “resort to hauling water because they cannot afford the expense to deepen their domestic wells.”

“I personally assisted an elderly couple that lived west of Sunsites a couple of years ago when their well went dry,” said McClelland, explaining that they had told them that a local well driller in Sunsites quoted them the sum of  $25,000 to deepen their well and to install a heavier duty pump.

“It might as well have been one million dollars,” McClelland said.

“I located and coordinated with a retired driller who still had an old cable-driven well rig.  I set him up with another local friend of mine who helped him as a laborer on the project,” McClelland said.

“My friend found a used pump that would do the job.  The total cost was $3,500 because once the guys got out to the elderly folks’ home and met them, they decided to do the job for cost.”

McClelland said that “the well worked fine until a few months ago until they both had to be moved into an assisted living center in Tucson due to health reasons.”

“I’m finding out that this is becoming the new trend – not only with deepening existing wells, but people are wildcatting un-permitted new wells,” said McClelland, adding, “People are worried and scared.”

McClelland said that he and wife Linda Nunez are “extremely concerned about our continued availability of groundwater here at our ranch.”

He said that the other day he talked to a local well and pump specialist  “to go over our options that included solar pumping and the cost of a new well on our south 40 acres. Holy cow...The prices were crazy.”

“Now if I would go get my Arizona Ag permit, I could go online, fill out a form and call into the ADWR and pay a $15 application fee to get an unregulated Ag well permit. Then I would call the USDA and get a low cost one-percent loan or a grant to dig and install the new well,” he said.

“How in the world is that a fair or reasonable allocation of groundwater, especially during a 14-year drought?” said McClelland, adding that it was called such by the National Weather Service.

McClelland went on to say, “I can tell you the Ag guys know that the days of unlimited groundwater are coming to a close.  The word that I’m getting on the street is that the farmers and other potential pecan and pistachio growers – four new well permits on Dragoon Road – are rushing to get their new wells permitted and installed because they know that the writing is on the wall.”

“Someone is asleep at the wheel in our State and county governments and should be held accountable for this reckless and harmful situation,” he said.

“It appears to me, without further investigation, that the ADWR has neglected its directive by our former governor (Jane Hull)  in the 1999 executive order for all State agencies to implement emergency water standards,”

“What is it about the words ‘emergency’ and ‘drought,’ they didn’t understand?”

The executive order, a copy of which was supplied by McClelland, was issued in 2007 by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, saying that it would take effect immediately and remain so until rescinded by the State governor.

McClelland told the legislators that the 306 irrigation pivots included in his research in the Sulphur Springs Valley have the potential to draw enough water out of our aquifer to completely drain dry Apache Reservoir, northeast of Phoenix, twice in one calendar year.

He said that District No. 3 in Cochise County has “100-percent of the ‘exceptional drought’ area” in the County.

In his e-mail, McClelland said a Glenn County, Calif. supervisor ,who was quoted in the Aug. 16 edition of the “Washington Post,” “sums it all up very well.”

“How many straws can you stick into one glass asked?” John Viegas, a county supervisor who, after months of fielding complaints from constituents about water shortages, was forced recently to lower his own well by 40 feet. “People need to realize you can’t water everything.”

McClelland pointed out that in February, the Cochise County website declared “that we are in a ‘primary natural disaster area,’ due to drought,” and that a precaution available to the County and State is to declare most of the county as an “irrigation non-expansion area.”

He said that state statute “may give the ADWR some very convenient lateral movement in working with the USDA in granting Ag well permits and the financing for those wells under a number of possible scenarios.”

McClelland said that “the severity of our Arizona drought is increasing monthly as shown in the drought monitor.”

“Sure, we’re getting towards the end of our monsoon season and water seems everywhere, but it’s not near enough to recharge our aquifers,” said McClelland, adding, “Not even close.”

“Again, I’m asking our Arizona legislative representatives to please immediately begin a study to determine when and how Arizona’s water rights should be adjudicated to protect, conserve and plan for future use of what now has become a limited commodity, due to a 14-year drought that currently has no end in sight.”

Haber told the Range News, “With climate change and global temperatures rising – the Western states seeing the largest increase – I worry every day about the water table in this valley.”

“I consider it my home and am well aware that no water means no life,” she said.  “Forget about oil, gas, copper and gold. No water equals no life. This should always be our top priority.”


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