Can Arizona Citizens Use the Tools of Democracy To Preserve the State's Dwindling Water?

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by High Country News.

An aerial photo of a mega-dairy

On a sunny morning in southern Arizona this spring, members of the Arizona Water Defenders gathered at a park in the small town of Douglas to answer residents’ questions about water — and to collect signatures for a citizen-led ballot initiative that would, for the first time, regulate the region’s aquifer.

The crowd that came was small but diverse. An hour into the community meeting, an artist arrived with a large, colorful map of the region’s geology that he was excited to show the Water Defenders.

A retired educator and her grown son came on foot and offered to go door-to-door in their neighborhood in support of the cause. Two students from the local community college rolled up on their longboards, and a man out on a mission of his own — handing out flyers he’d written about the value of God's love — also stopped to listen.

All signed in support of the initiative.

Who are the Arizona Water Defenders?

The Arizona Water Defenders, a grassroots group, was formed in March 2021 by southeastern Arizona residents who were concerned about local wells going dry and increasingly visible ground fissures and land subsidence. There has been agricultural pumping in the area since the 1940s, but in recent years, as large-scale dairy and nut producers have bought land in the area and drilled deep new wells, water table drawdown has become more noticeable and worrisome.

After contacting the Arizona Department of Water Resources and reading the state’s Groundwater Management Act, the Water Defenders began the process of initiating a ballot measure that would create Active Management Areas (AMAs) — geographic designations in which the state’s strictest groundwater regulations apply — for the Willcox and Douglas basins, southeastern Arizona's two watersheds.

In May, the Cochise County Elections Office approved the ballot initiative for the Willcox Basin; the Water Defenders will submit the signatures they collected for the Douglas Basin on July 6.

A pivot irrigation system
A new pivot irrigation system was installed by Riverview Dairy LLP near Elfrida, Arizona in 2021. Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

If voters approve the Willcox and Douglas AMAs in November, the new management areas will be the first in the state to have been created by citizen petition. Though other examples of collaborative groundwater management exist in the West — voluntary reductions in well use in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, for example,  as well as the San Joaquin Valley of California's Collaborative Water Action Program — most have come from state mandates.

There have been other groundwater-related ballot initiatives, including the bans on groundwater export proposed in California’s Siskiyou and San Luis Obispo Counties, but those have largely failed.

If the Water Defenders' ballot initiatives succeed, they will show that local, democratic approaches to regulating the West's increasingly scarce water resources are possible.

Together, the 1,910-square-mile Willcox Basin and the 750-square-mile Douglas Basin form the Sulphur Springs Valley, all of which is located in Arizona’s Cochise County, except for a small fringe.

After the county loosened its agricultural permitting regulations in 2012, Riverview LLP, a Minnesota-based dairy, began buying land on the eastern side of the valley. The dairy has drawn local concern and some animosity because its financial resources have enabled it to drill unusually deep wells, which many believe have dramatically affected the water table.

High Country News reported in August 2021 that since 2015, the company has drilled about 80 wells in the Willcox Basin and six more in the Douglas Basin. Most of them are at least 1,000 feet deep.

Legally, there are no limits as to how deep Riverview and the other agribusinesses that have recently bought land in the valley can dig wells, a fact that points to a paradox at the heart of Arizona’s groundwater law.

The state’s Groundwater Management Act came into being in 1981, after the federal government threatened to withhold Arizona’s share of Colorado River water until the state curbed its excessive groundwater usage. The law created four Active Management Areas for the areas where the aquifers were experiencing the greatest strain.

These management areas hold 80% of the state’s population and account for 70% of its water use. Yet by square mileage, they represent just 13% of Arizona’s total land area.

Two photos. The first photo is a suspended fence across a water-filled earth fissure. The second photo is a collapsed road
A suspended fence extends across a water-filled earth fissure near Willcox, Arizona (left). Collapse of a road in Willcox, Arizona into a void caused by erosion along an earth fissure first observed in 2010. This is the second time this portion of the roadway has suffered major damage due to collapse at this location (right). Joseph Cook/Arizona Geological Survey Photographic Atlas

Within these regulated regions, Arizona’s groundwater law is “one of the most comprehensive groundwater codes in the nation,” writes historian Thomas Sheridan in Arizona: A History.

According to Susanna Eden of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center, each management area is required to produce a conservation plan every 10 years, and there are rules about the volume of water groundwater users can pump.

But in areas not regulated by an AMA — including the Douglas and Willcox basins — there is no oversight of groundwater use. That’s what the Water Defenders hope to change this November.

(The Douglas Basin is designated as an Irrigation Non-Expansion Area, but it doesn't regulate the amount water that can be used; it only prohibits new land from being irrigated.)

In the summer of 2021, the Water Defenders — which Ash Dahlke, the group's chair, described as a “pretty scrappy group” that includes “a lot of teachers and librarians” — began the process of collecting signatures. The support of 10% of the basin’s registered voters is needed to put the creation of an AMA on the ballot.

“People agree we need something,” said Bekah Wilce, the Water Defenders’ treasurer. Wilce is optimistic that the group’s “hard work on the ground of talking to people” will pay off. “People didn’t know this was possible,” she said, but “they understand its importance.”

If voters approve the AMA proposals in November, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources will have 30 days to visit the basins and establish goals for the management area. The state also appoints advisory committees to represent the basins’ users. The department and the committees will then have two years to draft initial management plans for the new AMAs.

A man poses for the camera with a telephone pole at his side with a sign
Groundwater harvesting in the Willcox Basin is driving ground subsidence. This picture from the corner of Old Fort Grant Rd and Ranch House Rd in Willcox, Arizona shows 9.7 feet - as marked on the telephone pole - of subsidence between 1969 and 2018. Brian Conway/ADWR

But not all residents are on board with the proposal. Farmer Claire Owen said that it’s “too late” for new AMAs to be effective, because the water table has already dropped too much. “They messed up when they wrote the law in 1981,” he said. “Everybody should have had the same regulations.”

Jim Graham, who grows pistachios and grapes at Cochise Groves, said he is concerned but cautiously optimistic about the valley’s groundwater. He feels that an AMA is the “wrong tool. … It’s like going to the toolbox when you need a hammer and coming back with a saw.” Graham is also worried about the possible economic impact of new regulations.

Nathan Watkins of San Ysidro Farms doesn’t think that AMAs will mitigate Riverview's impact on the basins, at least not in the way that advocates hope they will.

“The dairy has changed the whole character of this valley because it bought out all the local farmers. We’ve lost our sense of community,” he said. Though he says he is unhappy about Riverview’s 1,500-foot-deep wells, he believes that the water table would still be dropping “even if the family farmers were still here.”

The Arizona Water Defenders believe that the intensive groundwater pumping by agribusiness has to be reined in, Wilce said, in order to ensure long-term groundwater access for small farmers and non-farming residents.

She emphasizes that AMAs are designed to respond to, and be shaped by, the needs of communities. “We need as many groundwater users as possible to be part of the process and have their voices heard in crafting our new AMAs.”

An aerial photo of a mega-dairy
The water usage of mega-dairies like this one has been accused of contributing to shortages for smaller farmers and residents in Arizona’s Willcox basin. Greg Bedinger/LightHawk

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