Safford-Area Residents Involved In Water Conservation Efforts During 20 Year Drought

July 26, 2013

Despite an active monsoon season in parts of the state, some communities in southeastern Arizona are coping with a severe drought. 

irrigation Ground water going into an irrigation ditch for cotton crops in Solomon on a sunny day. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

Officials with Graham and Greenlee counties said two decades of weak rainfall and mountain snow packs are to blame for the driest period the region has seen in 60 years. 

Safford’s only public swimming pool is packed with locals trying to escape temperatures in the upper 90s. There is a lot of splashing going on, but people who work at the pool have been ordered to do everything they can to save water. Julie Mae Garrett is the pool’s assistant manager. 

“In past years we’ve been able to spray off our decks and in the bathrooms, but since the water restrictions our maintenance men have got us mop buckets so instead of spraying off the decks and use that for the decks and bathrooms,” said Garrett.

A few miles away from Safford in the town of Thatcher, there is not a city swimming pool. Mayor Bob Rivera said voters approved plans for a water park in 2008, but the project is on hold. 

“You can build a pool, but we have no water, so you can’t use it," said Rivera.

He has ordered limits on how many days grass and trees are watered at city parks. Thatcher also recently adopted stricter standards for new home construction. 

“They have to put in water saving devices. Their shower heads have to give out so much water, so we’re trying to do what we can to conserve water,” said Rivera.

As our tour of Graham County continues, now we are in the town of Solomon where water pours from a well pipe into an irrigation ditch. It is the life-blood for the local cotton farmers. 

“I’m Mark Claridge, I’m the president of the Graham County Farm Bureau. I’m a farmer in the Gila Valley in the Safford area,” said Claridge.

He pointed at a field of wilted cotton that’s burning up. 

“The cotton hasn’t quite lapped, and you are seeing a lot of white blooms out there, blooms up into the top of the cotton, and that’s because it has been drought stressed. You don’t want your cotton blooming out the top this early in the season,” said Claridge. 

Cotton is Graham County’s cash crop, but farmers left almost half of their fields empty this season. And, what little water is saved the will share with neighboring farms, but Claridge said the drought is threatening to stir up conflicts. 

“Truthfully there was I think a little bit of gamesmanship up front, people claiming they weren’t going to plant a certain amount and to a certain degree they are trying to get their neighbor to blink and not plant a bunch of his and then that way maybe they could plant a few more acres,”  Claridge said.

Claridge said it is getting so bad that some local farmers are thinking of selling off their property and moving on. 

“Morale this year was one of the few years where I’ve seen guys start out the season kind of wrapping up,” he said.

Claridge jumped back in his truck and drove down the parched dirt road toward home, hoping for a little rain. Back in Safford, Mayor Chris Gibbs is hoping for a little rain too. 

“Worst case scenario is that we run completely out of water," Gibbs said.

He has been Safford’s mayor for three years, and he has spent most of that time trying to find new sources of water for the 24,000 people that live here.  

“We own 11 wells, 10 of which are in production, and six of those 10 are unable to produce the water level. The water table is below the pump," Gibbs said.

Last August, Gibbs declared a water emergency in Safford. People are only allowed to water their yards twice a week. Repeat violators face fines. People are also encouraged to voluntarily stop washing their cars, take fewer showers and flush toilets less often. 

“We’ve asked people  to restrict their use and to conserve as much as they can,” Gibbs said.

This week, the Safford City Council approved higher water rates to collect additional revenues to drill new wells and build pipelines. Starting in August, residential consumers will see a 5 percent to 7 percent increase, but heavy water users like restaurants and laundromats could see their rates rise by 80 percent over the next four years. Gibbs said as more city and private wells go dry he is worried about the impact on economic growth in Safford, a city that is only beginning to recover from the recession.