“Honey, go check the pump”

As you head to the kitchen to make your first pot of morning brew, imagine turning on the faucet and no water comes out.  How would you feel? What thoughts would go through your head?

If you’re a rural homeowner, you may wonder if the circuit breaker got tripped for your water pump or worse, maybe you need a new pump.  How flabbergasted would you be to find out there’s no water in your well?  This is not a scene from some apocalyptic movie. It’s already happened in several communities in Arizona due to groundwater overdraft.  An overdraft occurs when the level of water under the ground (the water table) is lowered often due to excessive groundwater pumping.

On June 7, 2015, AZCentral.com featured a story on a similar scenario in the Willcox area of Cochise County.  Jen and Ralph Score came home from church to find their well had run dry. Willcox farmers John Hart and Jim Graham both noticed groundwater levels dropping and mentioned increasing costs to pump water for their crops.

This was not the first time homeowners turned on their taps to find nothing there. In 2014, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) responded to concerned Cochise County residents by conducting a survey of well conditions in the Willcox Basin area. The results were startling. Of the 60 responses, 18 wells had gone dry, 9 had declining water levels or lowered production and 27 reported nearby wells going dry and/or concern over current conditions. Only 2 respondents had no current well problems.

Much to his credit, newly elected Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced the formation of the Arizona Water Initiative in the Fall of 2015. The initiative continues the work of ADWR’s 2015 “Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability.” In Track One of his plan, called the Planning Area Process, “ADWR will identify and prioritize the 22 planning areas” with the express intent to “work together with local stakeholders to create solutions that Arizona can then implement to meet future water demands.”

At the first Arizona Water Initiative meeting for the Cochise Planning area in March 2016, Frank Corkhill, Chief Hydrologist for ADWR, rattled off a litany of declining groundwater levels determined from index wells in the area. The four largest declines being Willcox  144 feet decline since 1966, San Simon 174 feet decline since 1962, Bowie  181 feet decline since 1947 and Kansas Settlement 186 feet decline since 1964. Also of concern, the rapid decline in Sunsites at 100 feet since 1990.

At the same meeting, ADWR Assistant Deputy Director Gerry Walker gave a general outline of groundwater management tools under the State’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act. She talked about Active Management Areas (AMAs) established for five urban areas and Irrigation Non-expansion Areas (INAs) in three agricultural areas where overpumping was a concern at the time the Act was established.  In the rest of the state, mostly rural areas, wells must be drilled legally but are only subject to “beneficial use” – essentially allowing a well owner to pump as much as they want.

Most rural well owners are alright with beneficial use – as long as the water continues to flow. What caused the biggest concern for the audience that day was Walker’s comment that groundwater is a “public resource.” You see in Arizona’s early water history that simply wasn’t the case. Water was granted to pioneers and settlers under a system called Prior Appropriation – basically first in time, first in right.

That public resource comment really irked some of the longtime ranching families and others sitting in the room. Many of whom strongly feel that if the State tries to regulate rural water they’ll just drill more wells and drill them deeper which will only add to the water problem.  To these folks, it’s a property rights issue and the water under their property is not a public resource – it’s theirs.

If you were a water policy expert in Arizona, how would you handle such a challenge?


© Sandra Hurlbut,  2016

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