Southwest Water History – The American Canal – Part 1

Historically, water has always been a problem in the American southwest. In the 19th century, the problem was either too much water or too little. Too much came in the form of sporadic, intense storms producing uncontrollable flood waters which destroyed everything in its path. Too little resulted from prolonged drought conditions or attempts to irrigate cropland in areas where water wasn’t available.

imperial-valley-hundley-p-52
Image Source: Hundley, “Water and the West, p 52. See below for full reference. 

 

In the mid 1800’s, the 49’ers headed to California to seek their fortunes in the gold rush. Most of them were unsuccessful in their quest for riches but a few took note of promising lands along the way. One of those early pioneers was Dr. Oliver M. Wozencraft who made note of the fertile land area now known as the Imperial Valley.

Soil was good there. Its richness consistently replenished by erosional deposits from the Colorado River as it made its way to the ocean. Periodically the river tore through its upper banks, dumping silt into the Salton Sink basin which sits below sea level. The basin’s topography is unique. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides and bordered on the east by the Sonora Desert and on the north by the Colorado Desert. Due to the mountain ranges, rainfall is limited averaging only three inches per year. Yet the high temperatures, fertile soil and abundant sunlight were perfect conditions for agriculture. The problem was how to get water to crops.

Wozencraft saw great potential in the land. He connected with Ebenezer Hadley, a surveyor with San Diego County, to figure out a way to irrigate the land using the Alamo canal, an overflow channel of the Colorado River which flows through Mexico before heading back into the US. The reason for the canal diversion south of the border was to bypass “the large shifting sand dunes that separated the river from the valley on the American side of the border.”1

Unfortunately, his vision of a fertile land would never come to fruition. Mainly because he felt the need to own the land the irrigation canal would be built upon. His attempts to persuade the California legislature to support his request for a grant of 1,600 miles of public domain land were rejected by Congress. Ultimately, he “spent the remaining 25 years of his life and his entire personal fortune trying to convince Congress to change its mind.”2

Forty-three years later, Charles R. Rockwood saw the incredible potential of this same land. He, too, realized water was the key to its development and began planning a means to bring water to the area. He created the California Development Company and sought funding from financial centers in both America and Europe. He also “enlisted the help of famed engineer George Chaffey” to figure out a way to tap the river’s water and bring it inland to the valley.3

Similar to Wozencraft’s vision, Chaffey’s irrigation design fed water through the Alamo overflow canal for delivery to the US. Rockwood’s dream was realized on June 21, 1901 when the first water reached the valley. A land boom followed. “Within eight months, 2,000 settlers had arrived, the towns of Imperial and Calexico were laid out, 400 miles of canals and laterals were built and 100,000 acres readied for cultivation.”4 By 1909 the population swelled to 15,000 with 160,000 acres being irrigated.

In spite of its initial success, there were problems controlling the diversion route south of the border. Rockwood negotiated an agreement with border land owner Guillermo Andrade to purchase the 100,000 acres on which the canal sat. For payment, Andrade not only wanted cash but water rights. In fact, he demanded “all water necessary…for the irrigation of the other lands” he owned below the border which was over 600,000 acres.5 Rockwood agreed to Andrade’s rather tall order because he felt the increase in land value would more than compensate for the cost of the land and the canal system.

The initial success of the diversion canal would be short lived. The Rockwood-Andrade agreement ruffled the feathers of the Mexican government who became concerned the river flow might be reduced or exhausted by canal users. The Mexican ambassador complained to Washington about a possible treaty violation without success.

In the meantime, in the winter of 1903-1904, the intake for the Imperial Valley canal silted up and the flow of water never reached many residents. Crop losses and lawsuits ensued. More bad news would follow. In 1905, an usually wet winter and spring would result in 5 floods breaching the canal, allowing the Colorado River to pour into the area and decimate the cropland. Financial ruin would force Rockwood to turn over his California Development Company to the Southern Pacific Railroad for help.

Prior to the devastating flood waters, Rockwood had a series of political setbacks as well. He was feeling pressured by the newly formed Reclamation Service which was interested in building four large reservoirs along the Colorado River to reclaim 90,000 acres in Arizona’s Yuma Valley. The Reclamation Service wanted to include the Imperial Valley in its scheme to help reduce the overall cost involved. If the Reclamation Service was successful in its attempts, he would soon be out of business.

He scrambled to get the War Department to give him permission to divert the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley north of the border. Since the river was technically deemed navigable by the US, the War Department was the agency to deal with. The War Department refused saying “it could not approve projects already completed.”6 He appealed to Congress and was shot down.

Much to his dismay, to prevent the Reclamation Service from imposing upon him, he felt compelled to work out a deal with the Mexican government to cut an intake to the river. This deal included some extremely onerous conditions. The government demanded half of the water diverted and the authority to set the water rates for Mexican lands as well as specify where the water would be used. The Mexican government wouldn’t allow Rockwood to sell or partner with any foreign government. The arrangement was “subject only to Mexican judicial system and any appeal or grievance to a foreign power would terminate the agreement.”7 As a result, when the floods did hit, Rockwood could not ask the US Government for help. Instead he went to the Southern Pacific Railroad for assistance. He was fortunate they were willing to assist and had the resources to do so.

Ultimately, the flood event proved to be too much to bear, even for the Southern Pacific. The company went into receivership with both Mexican and American creditors. Chaos ensued with both sides of the border wanting different things. The canal system went unmanaged for years and was left to deteriorate as all sides worked through the complicated receivership process.

Valley residents were understandably upset. They had grown tired of the onerous conditions imposed by the Mexican government and the inability of Rockwood’s company to manage water delivery. They demanded public ownership of the water supply system. Furthermore, they wanted to avoid any further overreach of the Mexican government. They wanted an “All American Canal.”

 

References

The primary reference for this article was “Water and the West – The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West” by Norris Hundley, Jr. Most points are paraphrased. Direct quotes are referenced below.

  1. Hundley, Norris Jr. “Water and the West – The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West”, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975, p. 20.
  2. Ibid, Hundley, p. 20
  3. Ibid, Hundley, p. 21
  4. Ibid, Hundley, p. 21
  5. Ibid, Hundley, p. 22
  6. Ibid, Hundley, p. 25
  7. Ibid, Hundley, p. 26

Arizona Water History – Marshaling Martial Law

Arizona’s history is colored by feuds and fights; the most famous being the OK Corral in Tombstone. One of the most protracted fights in Arizona history was with California over water allocations from the Colorado River.  Political leaders on both states fought bitterly over water rights for decades. Threats of fistfights and filibusters were written into the history of the Seventieth US Congress. Ultimately the water allocations issue was resolved in a Supreme Court battle which lasted over 11 years, included 340 witnesses, 50 lawyers and produced 25,000 pages of testimony – as well as one whimsical war story along the way.1

The rumbling started when Arizona refused to sign the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Arizona saw the compact as an aggressive push by California to secure river water at their expense. The compact divided the Colorado River into two basins, an upper and a lower one, with each basin allotted 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. Arizona, California and Nevada were part of the lower basin while Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico were part of the upper basin. Under this scheme, Nevada would receive 300,000 acre-feet of water annually, Arizona 2.8 million acre-feet per year and California 4.4 million acre-feet per year. To Arizona, the inequity was obvious and they weren’t going to sign.

Politics being politics, a “legal” means of moving the project forward without Arizona’s consent was devised and the compact was signed into law by mid-1925. Throughout the three year delay, California had been feverishly working on moving forward with an All-American Canal to divert large portions of the Colorado River into the southern part of the state. Congress passed the “Boulder Canyon Project Act” which included provisions for the All-American Canal and the construction of Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) on the Colorado River. The pot was being stirred and simmering.

Then California stepped over the proverbial line in the sand. They decided to build another dam, Parker Dam, on the Colorado River without asking Arizona for permission. Arizona’s fourth Governor Benjamin Moeur was boiling mad. He called on the Arizona National Guard to do some reconnaissance work.  Six soldiers were dispatched to Parker Arizona for observation and patrolled the dam construction site for several months.2

Moeur was “something of a stereotype” and “known for his short temper and profanity.”3 He was also very generous. Being a physician, he often offered “free medical consultations in the capital during his lunch hours. And he was known for writing off his patients’ medical debts every Christmas.”4 His generosity apparently had limits and one of them was California trying to take water away from Arizona.

His patience was tested in November 1934 when California decided to begin construction of a trestle bridge that would connect to Arizona.5 This action prompted Moeur to declare martial law and he dispatched 100 Arizona National Guard troops to block construction on Arizona’s land.6

He also started the first official Navy in landlocked Arizona when he authorized a ferryboat operator in Parker to transport the troops across the Colorado River.7 The Governor declared ferryboat owner and 17 year operator, Nellie Bush, as the Admiral of his new Navy. She would be in command of the ships.8

fa_1281_0334julieb1940
March 1934: The “Julia B.” Colorado River ferry during the so-called Parker Dam War. After several members of the Arizona National Guard used the vessel to scout the river, the “Julia B.” was dubbed the flageship of the Arizona “Navy.” This photo was published in the March, 8, 1934 Los Angeles Times.

At one point, the troops got in a bit of a pickle when one of the ferryboats got snagged in the river during a nighttime reconnaissance mission and “construction workers from the enemy state of California had to rescue them.9 The press had a field day with the news of “enemies” helping out the Arizona troops.

Can you picture this scene? A woman Naval commander, unheard of at the time, asking hearty male construction workers for assistance in freeing their boat. I’m sure the scene went sort of this: “Excuse me gentlemen, we seem to be in a bit of a bind. Would you mind helping to free us from this snag. Thank you so much.” Can you imagine what the construction workers as well as the Arizona troops were thinking?

In spite of this whimsical incident, the ferryboat Navy and the National Guard troops meant business. Forty members of the new Navy rode on the riverboats while twenty machine gunners were stationed on the shoreline to prevent construction on “the sacred soil of old Arizona.”10

In the end, Arizona won the Parker Dam battle as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, intervened and halted construction. A court case ensued and on April 29, 1935, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s right to object and interfere with the construction.11 Arizona felt vindicated and used this victory as a means to negotiate a deal to create its own irrigation system; the Gila River irrigation project.12 Parker Dam was completed three years later in 1938. The resulting Lake Havasu Reservoir now provides water to both southern California and to Arizona.

What happened to the infamous Admiral Nellie T. Bush? She became quite well known in Arizona. She was a justice of the peace in Parker, served in the state legislature and became a lawyer – passing the bar in both California and Arizona. She was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982.13

References:

  1. August, Jack L Jr. “Shaped by Water: An Arizona Historical Perspective” in Arizona Water Policy – Management Solutions in an Urbanizing, Arid Region. Bonnie G. Colby and Katharine Jacobs, editors. Resources for the Future. Washington. 2007. p. 18.
  2. Harrison, Scott. The Parker Dam War. Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 August 2015. Web. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  3. Stanley, John. Arizona Explained: Parker Dam almost started war. Arizona Republic. AZCentral Archives. Posted 15 July 2013. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017.
  4. Ibid, Stanley.
  5. Harrison, Scott. The Parker Dam War. Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 August 2015. Web. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  6. Ibid, Harrison.
  7. Stanley, John. Arizona Explained: Parker Dam almost started war. Arizona Republic. AZCentral Archives. Posted 15 July 2013. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017.
  8. Rodriquez, Nadine Arroyo. Did You Know: Arizona Navy Deployed In 1934. KJZZ Radio. Posted 4 September 2014. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017
  9. Stanley, John. Arizona Explained: Parker Dam almost started war. Arizona Republic. AZCentral Archives. Posted 15 July 2013. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017.
  10. Ibid, Stanley.
  11. Harrison, Scott. The Parker Dam War. Los Angeles Times. Posted 21 August 2015. Web. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  12. Spencer, Monica. This Is The Single Craziest Thing You Never Knew Happened In Arizona. Only in Your State Website. Posted 10 May 2016. Accessed 22 January 2107.
  13. Rodriquez, Nadine Arroyo. Did You Know: Arizona Navy Deployed In 1934. KJZZ Radio. Posted 4 September 2014. Web. Accessed 22 January 2017

Photo Credit: From Los Angeles Times archives as displayed in “The Parker Dam War” by Scott Harrison.

Original photo caption:

March 1934: The “Julia B”, a Colorado River ferry, is seen during the so-called Parker Dam War. After several members of the Arizona National Guard used the vessel to scout the river, the ferry was dubbed the flagship of the Arizona Navy. This photo was published March 8, 1934 by the Los Angeles Times.

Cow-tastrophe in the Making – Environmental Impacts of the Cattle Industry.

Years ago I remember reading reports on the connection between the cattle industry and global warming.  The articles spoke about how cow flatulence (cow farts) produced excessive amounts of methane, one of the worst gases contributing to global warming.  I dismissed the stories mainly because the reporters’ irreverent slants on cow farts impacting our atmosphere seemed laughable.  Now I’m not so sure.

Recently I watched the document “Cowspiracy” by Kip Andersen and was shocked by some of the information revealed. I’ve watched many, many documentaries and have been involved in the environmental movement for decades, but Andersen’s movie left me with an immediate visceral impact. If true, the cattle industry is one of the leading causes of not only climate change but habitat destruction, water pollution and other impending ecological crises.

How could I have missed this HUGE ominous impact to our global ecosystem? Was I living under a rock? I had to know more.

I set to work researching peer-reviewed scientific information on the environmental impacts of this industry. I wish I could report Andersen’s movie was off-base but I can’t. In fact, the information I found was personally devastating. It immediately made me question some of my own behaviors which may be having a bigger impact on the environment than I could ever imagine.  After years and years of conserving, recycling and being an environmental advocate, it seems my good intentions have been short sighted.

Recently, my blogs have been focusing on water use and contamination issues from hydraulic fracking.  I know the fracking industry uses a huge amount of water – 100 billion gallons of water every year in the US – but I was shocked by Andersen’s disclosure that animal agriculture uses 34 TRILLION gallons of water annually in the US – 340 times that of fracking! WOW!

He points out that our personal (domestic use) of water in the US accounts for only 5% of the total water use but agriculture uses 55% of all the water in the economy. Yet all the conservation efforts proposed by the EPA and other groups are focused on getting us to reduce our personal consumption of water. Clearly the focus needs to be elsewhere.

Recent attention has been given to the concept of “embedded water” which is the hidden water needed to create a product. A National Geographic website page called “The Hidden Water We Use” reveals that 1,799 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef. This figure includes 6.6 pounds of grain for feed plus irrigation water, 36.2 pounds of roughage or grasses for feed plus irrigation water and 18.6 gallons of water for drinking and processing per pound of beef.

According to the Home Water Works Organization website, the average American shower uses 17.2 gallons and lasts 8.2 minutes.  If we assume a quarter pound burger uses 450 gallons of water, then just one burger is equivalent to almost one month of daily showers. What an eye-opener!

Consider the larger impact on our globe. McDonalds sells 6,480,000 burgers per day world-wide. If we assume they are all quarter pound patties, then 2.9 billion gallons of water have been used to produce this daily allotment. Now multiply that by all the other burger chains and restaurants selling hamburgers. Now add the steakhouses… Get the picture?  It’s the domino effect on our water supplies.

Clearly our conservation focus should also be on our food consumption habits and not just our home. I’m not saying don’t conserve water at home. Let’s face it, wasting water is wasting water. There’s no need for it. However, if we can make a greater impact on protecting our water resources by changing our diet, isn’t it worth it? Especially when almost all nutritionists purport that a plant based diet is better for our health and is also environmentally sustainable, unlike cattle production.

Of course the water resource issue of the cattle industry is just one small piece of the bigger environmental puzzle. I encourage you to watch Kip Andersen’s “Cowspiracy” documentary for some startling conclusions to this controversy. You can stream it on Netflix or purchase it online.

Also, consider downloading the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options” (2006). This information is too important not to know.

What if by changing our diet we could nip climate change in the bud? Would you do it?

Water Flows Uphill to Money

“Life is not fair” is a lesson many people learn in early childhood. Whether it stems from watching popular students get picked first during elementary gym class or being forced to turn over lunch money to school yard bullies, some events in life just seem blatantly unfair.  For many people in California this theme may still ring true because, as the saying goes, “water flows uphill to money”.

A recent comparison of water rates in two middle class neighborhoods in California revealed an extreme example of unfairness. UCLA Blue Print published a Fall 2016 online article on water rate inequities. The piece called attention to the wide disparity in prices that water districts charge. It focused on the differences in water prices for the working class communities of Lynwood and Pico Rivera. In Pico Rivera the annual water bill averaged less than $200 per family a year whereas “in Lynwood, that same amount of water costs a family more than $1,500.”1

What causes such price disparity? The short answer for these residents is it depends upon where the water is coming from. Residents in Pico Rivera get their water locally from groundwater. Residents in Lynwood are “stuck with the privately owned Park Water Company, which purchases water conveyed from elsewhere and has some of the county’s highest rates.”2

Unfortunately such situations aren’t that unusual in California. A quick glance online will reveal several other similar articles. Last fall, the New York Times featured a story on how stingy water users have been fined for using too much water while in upscale Los Angeles hills, a man dubbed “the Wet Prince of Belair” proceeded to use more than 30,000 gallons of water per day — “the equivalent of 400 toilet flushes each hour with two showers running constantly, with enough water left over to keep the lawn perfectly green” and was never fined.3

Meanwhile, this fall, wealthy people in Hillsborough California who clearly can afford to pay for any amount of water they would like to use, are playing bully by suing their town for using Tiered Water Rates to help encourage conservation. What’s the reason behind the lawsuit? The aggrieved residents say “Hillsborough water officials violated Proposition 218, a state law that makes it illegal for government to charge more for a service than it costs to provide.”4

Legal Counsel for the plaintiffs freely acknowledges that it’s not about the money but about the principle.  They feel their “town is running amok.”5 Clearly encouraging saving water in a long-term drought is akin to some socialist movement in a pro-capitalist area. Why save water when they can always buy more?

How incredibly frustrating it must be for California water managers to establish water conservation policy and set rates given such constraints and attitudes. When did water become an entitlement for the privileged and not a resource for everyone?

 

References:

  1. Banks, Sandy. “A Problem: Water and Inequality”, UCLA Blue Print, Fall 2016. Web. 28-December 2016.
  2. Ibid, Banks.
  3. Lovett, Ian. “In California, Stingy Water Users Are Fined in Drought, While the Rich Soak”. New York Times. 21 November 2015. Web. 28 December 2016.
  4. Rogers, Paul. “California Drought: Wealthy Hillsborough Residents Sue, Saying Water Rates are Too High”. Mercury News. 30 November 2016. Web. 28 December 2016.
  5. Ibid, Rogers.

Is Fracking America’s Crack Cocaine?

Most of us know the horrors of crack cocaine addiction.  Many of our jails, half-way houses and streets are filled with people who cannot get enough of this dangerous drug. The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) website reports “a person can become addicted after his or her first time trying crack cocaine.” Users quickly develop a tolerance for the drug and need more and more to sustain their high. They often resort to all sorts of risky behaviors to obtain their drug of choice.1 Is America doing the same thing with its dependence on oil?

Gone are the easily accessible oil fields which fueled our nation in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Prolific reminders of their powerful influence scatter the country side with their rusted, iron bones. Abandoned oil and gas wells are everywhere.  NPR’s StateImpact website reported “There are probably around 200,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We know where just a slim fraction – probably four percent – of these wells are.”2 How many more are there across the country? No one knows for sure.

As America’s dependence on oil continues to grow, our nation engages in riskier and riskier behaviors to get its oil fix. No one can forget the havoc created by the Deepwater Horizons incident that began on April 20, 2010 and continued a full 6-months until September 19, 20103. That one spill delivered a toxic shock of 154,000,000 gallons of crude oil to the Gulf of Mexico.4 According to a BBC.com news story released November 15th, 2016, “researchers in Louisiana have discovered traces of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the feathers of birds eaten by land animals.”5 In other words, oil has entered the Gulf’s food chain.

Our insatiable thirst for oil has led us to create some controversial technological cures to support our habit – fracking being the main one. Conflicting health and environmental reports are everywhere. It should come as no surprise that a recent comprehensive report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute (API) by Catalyst Environmental Solutions plainly stated it found “Quantitative Support for EPA’s Finding of No Widespread, Systemic Effects to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing.”6 Yep, as the title suggests and the US EPA has reported there’s no drinking water impact from fracking!7 Seems a little unbelievable to me.

Also released this month was a report prepared by two groups of physicians the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Physicians for Social Responsibility with completely different results. Their document titled “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)”8 highlights several public health concerns. Their article reviews the “scientific literature available from 2009-2015—which… included 685 peer reviewed papers—69 percent of original research studies on water quality found potential for, or actual evidence of, water contamination; 87 percent of original research studies on air quality found elevated air pollutant emissions; and 84 percent of original research studies on human health risks found signs of harm or indication of potential harm.”9

Doesn’t it make you wonder how the EPA did their assessment? 

 

References:

  1. Patterson, Eric, “Crack Abuse”; Drug Abuse. No date. Web. 19 November 2016
  2. “Perilous Pathways: The Danger Of Drilling Near Abandoned Wells”; StateImpact NPR. No date. Web. 19 November 2016
  3. “Deepwater Horizon oil spill”; Wikipedia. no date. Web. 19 November 2016.
  4. Gill, Victoria, “BP Deepwater Horizon oil in land-animal food chain”; BBC News.  16 November 2016. Web. 19 November 2016.
  5. Ibid, Gill.
  6. “Quantitative Support for EPA’s Finding of No Widespread, Systemic Effects to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing”; report for American Petroleum Institute by Catalyst Environmental Solutions, November 2016.
  7. “U.S. EPA. Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (External Review Draft)”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-15/047, 2015.
  8. “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)”, compiled by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility, Fourth Edition, November 17, 2016.
  9. Ibid, p. 4

Is water a God-given right?

Most people think access to water is a God-given right, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. History is filled with legal precedents trying to resolve basic water rights; essentially sorting out the “haves versus the have nots”. Even today, in water-scarce areas like South Africa and the Middle East, unstable governments are allowing private companies to provide water services. Unfortunately many of these large corporations are callously controlling limited water resources making access to this life giving substance an economic burden for the poor.

Here in Arizona, a new “land rush” has begun in rural areas with the express intent of gaining access to aquifers virtually unregulated by Arizona state water law. Farmers from drought stricken areas of California, outside investors and even corporations from Saudi Arabia are purchasing large tracts of land in rural counties to grow water intensive crops, often for international export. Counties which have already been impacted include Mohave, Cochise and La Paz.  Could Yavapai County be next?

The intentions behind these new land investments have provoked controversy. One of the better-known investors of property in Willcox (Cochise County) is Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffet. He was quoted in a January 27, 2016 Arizona Public Media article saying “You don’t buy land here. You buy water.”  Buffet’s Arizona holdings include 4,400 acres in the Willcox area and he’s leasing another 4,500 acres from the state of Arizona for a family foundation engaged in agricultural research.  He says they’ll keep the research going unless they run out of water.

Tempers flared in Mohave County when a Modesto California nut company moved into the Kingman area amassing more than 5,800 acres of land to grow pistachios, walnuts and almonds. A January 21, 2016 Havasu News online article estimates a potential drawdown of 24,000 acre-feet of water annually – that’s over 7.8 billion gallons a year!

What was troublesome to some Mohave County locals was the seemingly clandestine approach used to purchase the land. The company bought the land under three separate limited liability companies, including “Mohave Valley University LLC,” “Valle Vista Environmental Studies LLC,” and “RB Ranch Development LLC”; company names which hardly suggest large-scale farming operations.

In La Paz County, hackles have been raised by foreign entities purchasing land to export high water use crops, such as alfalfa, to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.  In a January 15, 2016 CNBC.com article, Keith Murfield, CEO of Tempe-based United Dairymen of Arizona, believes the Saudi alfalfa shipments are basically “exporting water,” because in Saudi Arabia, “they have decided that it’s better to bring feed in rather than to empty their water reserves.”

What’s disconcerting to county officials in all three areas is this “water farming” phenomenon is entirely legal under Arizona state law. When Arizona established the once ground-breaking 1980 Groundwater Management Act, it established “Active Management Areas” (AMAs) in mostly urban areas (Prescott being one) and “Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas (INAs) in three rural areas where over-pumping was already a concern. The rest of the state was left to “reasonable and beneficial use” – which essentially means unlimited use.

County supervisors and municipal officials have limited authority to stop land investors from mining groundwater for crops. In the same CNBC.com article cited above, La Paz County Board of Supervisors Chairman Holly Irwin voiced strong opposition to this export practice noting “It’s very frustrating for me, especially when I have residents telling me that their wells are going dry and they have to dig a lot deeper for water.” A similar situation has already occurred in the Pierce and Sunsites area of Cochise County.

How would you handle this dilemma if you were a County Supervisor in rural Arizona?

 

* Portions of this article were published in The Daily Courier’s “Talk of the Town” column on November 1, 2016. (Prescott, AZ)

“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.  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.  (www.azwater.gov/azdwr/PublicInformationOfficer/documents/WellSurveyResults.pdf)

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 ground water 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 ground water 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 over pumping 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 long time 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