State Considers Moratorium On New Farmland In Southeast Arizona

By Will Stone
Published: Wednesday, July 29, 2015 - 5:39pm
Updated: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 9:26am
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Growers in southeast Arizona are nervous. By mid-August, the state will make a ruling on whether or not to put a moratorium on new farmland there. 

This is the first time farmers have petitioned the state to institute an “Irrigation Non-Expansion Area” (INA). If approved, no new acres of land could be irrigated in the San Simon Valley, east of Willcox on the New Mexico border. State data collected from wells show the measured water level there has dropped about 10 feet since 2007 due to pumping. Sixteen growers have come forward and asked the Arizona Department of Water Resources to step in.

“The majority of comments the department received during the open comment period were opposed," said Michelle Moreno, a spokesperson for ADWR. 

According to a presentation given by a former state official earlier this year, the groundwater depletion in the San Simon Valley is "negligible" at the current rate and "technical data does not support the establishment of an INA."

But the debate has caused a rift in the agricultural community. Some people argue a ban would rob them of the right to expand their farms one day and would only benefit the established growers. 

But Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona, said that contention does not jive with Arizona water law. 

Unlike Phoenix, most of rural Arizona does not have limits on pumping, "but you don’t own the water,” explained Glennon.

“You don’t have any absolute right to pump groundwater from beneath your land, that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Glennon argued this lax regulation triggers “a race to the bottom of the aquifer." In other words, neighbors end up competing against each other as both draw from the aquifer without limits. 

According to Moreno, the decision to create an INA is based on whether there's "insufficient groundwater available for irrigation at the current rates of withdraw," and "if an Active Management Area (AMA) is not necessary."

Phoenix and Tucson are each inside AMAs, which place even more restrictions on groundwater than an INA.

The director of ADWR, however, is not required to consider the potential economic impact of designating an INA. Three such areas already exist in Arizona. Two were created with the passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act and the third, which is west of Phoenix, was formed in 1982. 

A petition to create an INA in the Willcox basin is also circulating, but has not yet been filed with the state.

The deadline for the San Simon decision is August 14.

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