Rural Arizona Community Reckons With Loss Of Groundwater

By Will Stone
Published: Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 2:42pm
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(Photo by Will Stone - KJZZ News)
Mariah Miller's well went dry more than half a year ago, a symptom of unsustainable groundwater pumping in Cochise County..
(Photo by Will Stone - KJZZ)
The view from Mariah Miller's home in Cochise County.

It was August last year when Mariah Miller ran out of water.

She stoops over a dry pipe, stuffed with rags, sunken into the floor behind her kitchen. Miller moved to Cochise County, a rural southeastern corner of the state, about six years ago. She runs a dog grooming business from her home.

 “At first, you don’t think that you’re really out of water," said Miller. "But every time you go to the faucet, try to wash your hands, flush the toilet, or do anything. It's horrible.”

Water is Arizona's most precious resource. While cities like Phoenix have stocked away enough to survive years of drought, that is not the case in the Willcox Basin, where the water table is rapidly declining. The situation is beginning to put a strain on homeowners and businesses.

For a while, Miller came up with workarounds. She asked customers to bring water, even connected a hose to her neighbor’s well. Eventually, without a consistent supply, things got tough for her. A new, deeper well would have cost $17,000.   

“I’m losing my house now, too. I couldn’t keep my business going with no water,” said Miller.

Murray McClelland, president of the Pearce-Sunites Chamber of Commerce, said at least a dozen domestic wells in the area have gone dry over the past year.

“We have come to a bend in the road where we all realize that this situation is unsustainable,” said McClelland.

Unlike Maricopa County, everyone in this basin relies on groundwater — the vast majority of which goes to agriculture.

 “We have to level the playing field, so that everyone can take advantage of a limited resource here in the Willcox Basin,” said McClelland

McClelland is not not "anti-agriculture," but the industry needs to cutback to preserve the water table here, he said. He points to data showing the aquifer has been overdrafted for decades, meaning water has been pumped out faster than it can recharge.

Alan Seitz used to farm and now works for an agriculture retail supplier. He and McClelland, as well as farmers and ranchers, are part of a local group trying to come up with a solution to the drop in the water table.

“We do use the bulk of the water," said Seitz. “At the same time, everybody at the table needs to realize that if the ag community goes away, the northern half of Cochise County is bankrupt.”

According to Seitz, this problem is not as simple as farmers versus homeowners, but unfortunately there is a reality to living in the desert.

"Particularly the homeowners, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but when they moved to an ag area to retire, and they drilled a well, down 200 to 250 feet, whatever that number is, in some cases, those wells just need to be deeper,” said Seitz.

Water is no longer just a couple hundred feet below the surface anymore. Large farm operations can generally afford to drill deeper, for example, by taking out low-interest loans, but homeowners who are on fixed incomes — like Mariah Miller — do not have that option.

To understand how the water situation has gotten so bad in the Willcox Basin, you have to go back more than 30 years when the state was rewriting its groundwater laws. Kathleen Ferris, now with the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, was part of that effort and toured the state gathering input from locals.

“We were basically overwhelmingly told in the Willcox area to go away," said Ferris. "They did not want to have groundwater managed. That was true in many other rural areas of the state.”

Instead, they focused on regulating much of the populated areas. Those management schemes, known as Active Management Areas or Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas, have saved Arizona from a California-like drought crisis. But the rest of the state was left with essentially no restrictions on how much you could pump, so long as the water is put to good use.

 “I didn’t think it was a good idea at the time, but it’s what was needed politically,” said Ferris.

Now, after years of drought, the impacts are becoming clear. In fact, the state recently placed a temporary moratorium on irrigating new farmland in the area next to Willcox, known as the San Simon Sub-Basin.

A similar freeze on new farming could happen around Willcox, too — unless another solution is found soon.

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