Opinion: Two rural Arizona communities have figured out how to successfully ask for more water regulation. That has implications for many more.
With almost no rules on groundwater use in rural Arizona, the default law in 80% of the state is “those with the deepest wells win.”
But that may be changing.
For the first time in four decades, new lands in opposite corners of Arizona have new groundwater regulations.
Not because the state forced it down their throats. But because residents and local elected leaders figured out how to successfully ask for it.
Voters, elected leaders asked for regulation
Groundwater is the sole source of life for many rural communities. It is finite – meaning that once we deplete it, we can’t get it back.
For years, we were told that residents didn’t want regulation to handle growing problems with overuse.
Yet voters in the Douglas groundwater basin – which includes Douglas, Bisbee and heavily farmed areas to their north – approved a grassroots group’s request in November to form an Active Management Area (AMA).
That’s the most stringent form of regulation in Arizona, which includes water allotments for farmers and conservation requirements for agricultural, municipal and industrial users, such as dairies.
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Then, a month later, the Department of Water Resources approved a request from Mohave County supervisors to create an Irrigation Non-expansion Area (INA) for the Hualapai basin north and east of Kingman.
It caps irrigated acreage and requires large well owners to report usage, though they remain free to pump as much water as they want.
A grassroots campaign sold it in Douglas
In Douglas, a group of residents called the Arizona Water Defenders did what many had figured was impossible. They ran a nonpartisan campaign with only a fraction of the cash of their opponents, relying heavily on neighbors to knock on doors and sell the idea of an AMA.
It worked. The measure passed convincingly.
Yet support was mostly clustered in small towns, not among farmers who arguably would be most affected by the designation.
That may be why an identical measure failed in the adjacent Willcox basin, despite it having some of the state’s worst groundwater problems. Unlike Douglas, it was not previously designated as an INA.
It’s a tough sell to go from zero to 100, even if wells are running dry.
Which is why the Mohave County INA effort also matters.
Data drove the decision in Mohave County
County supervisors, alarmed by the proliferation of farms in an area that had not historically been cultivated, had requested state intervention twice before.
But it was rejected because state law requires the water department to only consider current water use in its analysis. Supervisors could not convincingly show that farms were drawing out much more groundwater than they could replace.
So, they cobbled together cash for the United States Geological Survey to create a groundwater model that the county could regularly update. The county used aerial photography to estimate acreage farmed and crops grown, which in turn helped estimate water use.
Leaders then funneled that data to the state water director, who in his review concluded that use in the basin was four times higher than recharge, and that under current pumping levels, 1 in 20 wells would be dry in the next 100 years.
Rural regulation is no longer a pipe dream
An INA won’t stop this overdraft. It simply stops digging the hole any deeper – and even then, there are ways around its provisions, as folks in the Douglas basin can attest.
It’s a step, supporters say, not the ultimate destination.
Which, of course, makes farmers nervous. They have long fought even modest efforts to quantify groundwater use because they see that as a camel’s nose under the tent:
Allow a little bit of regulation, and soon, they’ll be pushed out of business.
But rural groundwater regulation is no longer a pipe dream. Two communities have proved they are fed up with a lack of regulation, with many more closely watching their efforts.
A new state law requires Arizona water officials to create a supply and demand assessment for every groundwater basin in the state every five years. The first to be tackled next year include some of rural Arizona’s most groundwater-challenged basins.
That means other counties will soon have current water-use data to make their case for regulation, should they desire it.
How do we build trust to have this debate?
The urge now may be to throw up as many roadblocks as possible to ensure that doesn’t happen.
But a better way to respond would be to work on ways to fairly level the playing field – not to put people out of business, but precisely to keep them in it for as long as possible.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know how to build the trust necessary to have this conversation. Especially when the water outlook in some areas may require farmers to do business differently. Or to farm fewer acres.
But that’s where our efforts must now turn. Not to pit one use against another, but to ensure that not just those with the deepest wells survive.
Reach Allhands at email@example.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.
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