Herald/Review – Sulphur Springs Basin groundwater decline

4/22/24: Background on the issue of AMAs in the Douglas and Willcox Basins

From the Herald/Review article by Shar Porier:  "BISBEE — For years, people living within the Sulphur Springs Valley have endured an overwhelming problem as the decline of the groundwater has caused wells to go dry and they must make a difficult decision — drill deeper, find a new well location, truck in water or just sell their land along with their dreams of the future."
More local coverage trying to put some perspective on the continuing groundwater crisis in Cochise County, Arizona.

Read more at Myheraldreview.com

AZCIR – Groundwater regulation weakness

Groundwater regulation weaknesses exploited by industrial-scale agriculture

ELFRIDA, Ariz. — Elaine Bailey stood at the microphone at the Sunsites Community Center in southeastern Arizona, voice shaking as she described the massive scale of new agricultural development next to her property. The nearby fields have drawn so much water from the surrounding area, she said, that her well has gone dry.

“Here we are, all these good people fighting for our lives, our homes, our everything,” Bailey said. “Because if the water goes, our homes aren't worth anything. That's the reality. And I just don't understand how the state can even allow it.”

“I don’t, either,” replied Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes, who visited the small community in February to hear residents’ concerns about the groundwater in Sulphur Springs Valley—home to the Willcox and Douglas groundwater basins.

The Douglas basin has seen agricultural development explode in recent years, despite two major attempts to limit groundwater usage in the region: In 1980, it was designated an Irrigation Non-expansion Area, barring the addition of new irrigated land, and in 2022, it became an Active Management Area, which carries the state’s most stringent level of groundwater regulation.

Yet over the past 15 years, even with these restrictions in effect, at least several thousand acres of dormant farmland have again started siphoning groundwater to sustain new crops, an AZCIR analysis has found. The increase in pumping, at an intensity not previously seen in the basin, is largely under industrial-scale owners that have consolidated the land, and the grandfathered water rights tied to it, into massive operations. The analysis, which matched federal satellite data to local property records, also shows new irrigation occurring on land that had never previously been cultivated.

The resulting groundwater declines have accelerated the most on properties closest to these large-sale farms, which have embraced more water-intensive practices like double cropping, or harvesting multiple crops on the same field throughout the year. The number of acres using this method has grown by more than 600% in the Douglas basin since 2008, AZCIR’s analysis also found.


Residents contend some of these well-financed agricultural players are exploiting loopholes in existing regulations, and that some could be outright violating them. Regardless of the legality of the maneuvers, the industrial farms have expanded, often at the expense of their smaller neighbors. North of Elfrida, Ariz., for instance, where much of the growth has occurred, water levels in some wells have dropped by more than four feet per year—a statistic that drew gasps at the Sunsites Community Center.

It is broadly acknowledged that without current and past regulations, the situation in the Douglas basin would be much worse. But residents’ experiences, backed by mounting data, raise questions about whether existing regulatory tools are effective enough to protect the aquifer in the long term. And as the basin’s groundwater continues to decline, residents’ confidence in the ability of the Arizona Department of Water Resources to protect their sole supply of water dwindles alongside it.

“From what I've seen, they have not been able to enforce the law and the regulations that are in place, even as it is,” said Anastasia Rabin, a neighbor of Elaine Bailey’s who has documented and reported the expansion of new fields.

Statewide, the number of basins facing similar groundwater restrictions is growing for the first time in 40 years. Short of meaningful intervention by the Arizona Legislature, however, experts and residents worry the same regulatory shortfalls seen in this Cochise County basin will play out across the state, with well-financed, large-scale agriculture taking advantage of existing policies at the cost of locals who don’t have the resources or government backing to do more.

Mayes, who collected Rabin and Bailey’s contact information to further investigate their claims, blames the Legislature because it has not passed meaningful groundwater regulation in decades.

“This Legislature has failed all of us,” Mayes told residents in February. The room erupted with applause.

When the Douglas basin was established as an Irrigation Non-expansion Area (INA) in 1980, the designation limited the expansion of irrigated farmland while allowing those already watering crops to continue doing so. As long as landowners had irrigated at any point in the five years leading up to the new regulation, they were grandfathered into the new system, meaning they could use groundwater to grow crops moving forward.

But these grandfathered rights are tied to the land, not the user. Even if a parcel stops being farmed, subsequent owners have the right to irrigate again at any time.

Industrial-scale farms that have settled in Cochise County since the INA was established, often from out of state, have done just that. And because the INA capped only the number of acres being irrigated—not the amount of water any one landowner can use—it enabled these operations to purchase land with grandfathered irrigation rights and deploy intensive irrigation practices like double cropping.

Arizona’s climate favors such farming tactics, especially with crops like corn and winter wheat, because they give farmers the potential to grow year-round, resulting in greater efficiency and higher yields. In an industry with razor-thin margins, that profitability gives farms that can operate at scale a huge edge.

Those farms seem to be pressing that advantage.

AZCIR’s analysis of satellite data shows that much of the intensive irrigation is happening under several large operators, particularly in the northern portion of the basin where recent groundwater declines in nearby wells are the most severe.

Farmland there is being consolidated under the biggest players, mirroring a national trend, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm census. In Arizona, these operations are using deeper wells with more powerful pumps than ever before, threatening the property of nearby residents and smaller farms.

consolidated farmland using groundwater irrigation in the douglas basin in cochise county, arizona
Graphic by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

Dormant land purchased with grandfathered irrigation rights is a primary reason for recent growth in the Douglas basin’s active farmland, but it is not the only one. A small provision in the state law also allows owners to swap irrigation rights from cropland that can’t be irrigated efficiently into new acres elsewhere.

Most irrigation rights were initially assigned to rectangular fields that were flood-irrigated, a method that immerses a field so water can be absorbed into the soil. But as farmers switched to more efficient center pivot irrigation, which allows more control of how much water is applied by a sprinkler arm rotating in a circle, the corners of these fields were often left uncultivated.

In 2018, White Brothers Grain, one of the biggest farms in the Douglas basin, filed an application to voluntarily give up rights to irrigate the corners in some of its fields. In exchange, the company added new acreage that equaled the size of the corners it retired from irrigation. The Arizona Department of Water Resources signed off on the swap, and soon after, other farms such as Riverview followed its lead.

“There's been a lot of people, a lot of families, a lot of businesses that have benefited from things being set up the way that they are. Ultimately, they'll be hurt too. But not yet,” Rabin said. “They’ll fight to the death of the aquifer.”

Anastasia Rabin, a resident living in Arizona's Douglas basin, said she's watched farmland development continue next to her property despite a ban placed on the basin in August 2022. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
Douglas basin resident Anastasia Rabin poses for a photo on Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

In an emailed response, Denise White of White Brothers Grain said it “followed all Arizona state laws and ADWR regulation in the previous INA, and will do so going forward with the new AMA.” The White family, which has farmed in the basin since the 1950’s, said they “are proud to be part of Arizona agriculture and want future family generations to have the same opportunities,” emphasizing their commitment to more efficient forms of irrigation.

Riverview did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A center pivot sprinkler arm irrigates a field with groundwater in Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County on Feb. 23, 2024.  Photos by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
Mist rises from a field getting watered by a center pivot irrigation system in Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley on Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

Unlimited groundwater pumping within the Douglas basin is part of the reason voters approved the creation of an Active Management Area in 2022. Though not yet fully implemented, the regulation generally limits new expansion of irrigated land and is expected to cap the amount of groundwater pumping based on recent use. It’s the most restrictive form of groundwater regulation in Arizona, and has traditionally been applied to areas like Phoenix and Tucson, which favor urban development as farmland is retired.

In the case of the Douglas basin, some farms rushed to expand their operations as soon as whispers of more regulation started. As previously reported by AZCIR, this included a flurry of new applications to drill deeper wells with higher capacity pumps. This activity continued until the more stringent regulation was placed on the ballot in August 2022, at which point new irrigation was banned. Voters passed the measure, and the irrigation moratorium remains in effect.

Farms that are still developing land for irrigation within the new AMA are most likely expecting to benefit from the Substantial Capital Investment exemption, which allows landowners to keep their existing irrigation rights for land that wasn’t yet irrigated before the moratorium, but only by proving they had already made substantial investment to do so.

The exemption is meant to account for the huge startup costs and lead time needed to bring new fields under irrigation. The investment must have been made prior to the basin’s current moratorium, and the time to apply for it alongside grandfathered rights was recently extended from March 1, 2024 until Sept. 3, 2024.

Applications for the exemption, however, are judged on a case-by-case basis, meaning a farmer doesn’t know whether an investment will end up getting approved.

Those who continue development are taking a gamble of tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of dollars—a gamble that not every farm in the basin can afford.

It is unclear whether the development witnessed by Bailey and Rabin is part of an intended application for the capital investment exception. Both have sought investigations by the Arizona Department of Water Resources into the activity.

The department wrote in an email to AZCIR that one case involving illegal irrigation has been “resolved,” and that other investigations are ongoing. Rabin’s complaint, which was filed in January 2023, was recently closed. Despite repeated requests, ADWR declined to comment on the outcome of that investigation.

A center pivot sprinkler arm irrigates a field with groundwater in Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County on Feb. 23, 2024.  Photos by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
A center pivot sprinkler arm irrigates a field with groundwater in Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County on Feb. 23, 2024.  Photos by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
drops of groundwater from irrigated farmland are shown in detail on a blade of grass
A center pivot sprinkler arm irrigates a field in Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County on Feb. 23, 2024.  Photos by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

Sulphur Springs Valley residents who filled the Sunsites Community Center in February said they were frustrated by what they see as unchecked development. In voicing their concerns to Attorney General Mayes, some said they hoped she could help them in ways local regulations and the Arizona Legislature had not.

Residents told AZCIR they saw the visit as a new opportunity for direct action by a state leader whose job it is to enforce laws and investigate wrongdoing. Mayes told them one option could be for her office to file nuisance lawsuits against any groundwater user “that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons.”

Republican leaders at the Legislature have since rebuked the move by attempting to strip Mayes’ office of the authority to use the nuisance suit tactic. The amendment to House Bill 2124, which already seeks to protect farms against groundwater litigation, was added by Senator Sine Kerr-R, Buckeye, chair of the senate’s Natural Resources, Energy and Water committee, who also walked off the governor’s rural groundwater council last year alongside the Arizona Farm Bureau. The change would only allow county or city prosecutors to file such nuisance lawsuits.

Local landowners and small farmers said they feel caught in the middle, with few options to implement changes that actually limit the withdrawal of their only reliable source of water.

And as Douglas basin residents urge the state to investigate possible violations of the 2022 irrigation ban, those living in the Willcox basin are looking for alternative solutions to the groundwater depletion in their region.

Unlike their neighbors, residents there did not approve the new regulation when they voted on it in 2022. But absent meaningful progress at the state level to address the growing crisis, residents in Willcox are again starting to discuss the option of designating their basin as an INA.

There is some community agreement that the move could help slow the depletion of groundwater from a rush of new farmers or additional fields, as it did in Douglas. But given the weaknesses in existing regulations being exploited by those with the most resources, including political maneuvering happening at the state level, other residents aren’t sure if the designation will do enough.

Cheryl Knott, a former member of the Arizona Water Defenders, lives in Sunsites, Ariz., near the border between the Douglas and Wilcox groundwater basins. She has helped advocate for further groundwater regulation in both basins. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
Cheryl Knott, a former member of the Arizona Water Defenders, lives in Sunsites, Ariz., near the border between the Douglas and Wilcox groundwater basins. She has helped advocate for further groundwater regulation in both basins. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

“I think one of the things that's really striking is that an INA is so weak,” said Cheryl Knott, a Willcox basin resident who helped get regulation on the ballot for the Willcox and Douglas basins in 2022. “[An INA] would make it seem like something was being done, and it would not have an impact.”

The same debates are occurring across Arizona, and now, some of the industrial-scale agricultural operations are using the courts to push back. Large farms in Mohave County’s Hualapai Valley basin, for example, are pursuing legal action against the state Department of Water Resources to undo the INA designation it made in 2022, arguing the data was insufficient to establish the regulation in the first place.

At the state level, House Republicans have also launched an inquiry into Mayes’ office, accusing the state’s top prosecutor of overstepping her statutory authority to enforce water policy.

“The ground is opening up beneath the people of Cochise County,” Mayes said at a press conference the next day, while pointing over her shoulder at the Arizona Capitol. “People are watching their livelihoods be destroyed because this place can't get its act together, because this place is dysfunctional.”

This article first appeared on Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AZCIR – Groundwater analysis

Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting explains their analysis of water usage in the Cochise County Douglas Basin

Our methods: Groundwater regulation weakness exploited by large farms

To understand the growth of active farmland and groundwater declines in the Douglas basin, AZCIR analyzed data from local and state agencies, including the Arizona Department of Water Resources, as well as satellite data compiled by federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The analysis used satellite raster data, or data with an assigned value for each pixel in a given image, from the USGS and USDA, with the earliest available data in 2001 and 2008, respectively. 

The USGS data categorizes general land use and denotes general farmland, while the USDA data categorizes farmland by the crop type grown on a given field. 

AZCIR used shapefiles, or data files that show objects on maps, including boundaries, to identify the Douglas basin area, including the Irrigation Non-expansion Area designation within it. These files were acquired from ADWR’s mapping repository, and were used to isolate and count the pixels within these boundaries to determine the amount of farmland in each given year for which data was available.

USDA data was overlaid with ADWR’s Irrigation Grandfathered Right (IGFR) shapefiles, which maps the fields with irrigation rights, to verify that every irrigated field had an IGFR associated with it, and thus was legally allowed to be watered under the basin’s INA designation since 1980.

Interviews with Douglas basin residents pointed to fields appearing that, many said, were never previously irrigated. AZCIR used satellite imagery with false-color bands emphasizing green, which is specialized to spot vegetation and shows irrigated agriculture, to verify the claims.

Two of these images make up the comparison slider and maps used in the main story. Satellite images from 1983 were the earliest available, but images for the slider were selected based on clarity, cloud cover and season to match with the most recent clear image in 2024.

Several new fields did appear from these images, so AZCIR reporters then checked this information against the IGFR data, which shows grandfathered rights tied to specific fields.

The IGFR data also showed that some fields had corners of what was formerly a rectangular field retired from irrigation. Documentation tied to these specific parcels mentioned consolidation of irrigation rights from retired corners, which then led to new rights that matched the suspected new fields observed by AZCIR’s analysis. 

This confirmed the creation of new fields through legal substitutions of retired land, as outlined within this story.

Separately, parcel shapefiles from the Cochise County Assessor’s Office were layered over the satellite imagery to confirm the identity of irrigated farmland owners. This allowed AZCIR to determine who owned the most intensely farmed area of the basin. However, because of inconsistencies in how the forms were filled out, some grouping was required: Some entries, for example, cite “Riverview LLP d.b.a. Coronado Farms LLP” and others cite variations of those same names.  For the purposes of this analysis, these were all standardized.

USDA data helped AZCIR determine the type of crops grown in the basin. Although specific crops fluctuated from year to year, double-cropped fields were separately denoted in the data. This let AZCIR determine that double-cropped fields grew from an estimated 1,408 acres in 2008 to over 10,196 acres in 2024. 

Finally, data from ADWR active index sites, or groundwater monitoring sites used to standardize measurements in specific areas within the basin, were used as another layer on AZCIR’s mapping analysis. Latitude and Longitude were imported onto the satellite images so AZCIR could place these wells on the maps. This is how AZCIR was able to determine the local impact from nearby pumping, in large part by reviewing each well’s hydrograph, or year-over-year water level measurements. 

AZCIR also used ADWR data to determine basin-wide groundwater withdrawal, which was gathered by monitoring wells created by the INA regulation. 

This article first appeared on Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

AZCIR – Surge in well drilling

Whispers of groundwater regulations spur surges of deeper, higher-capacity wells

In 2022, when the southeastern Arizona community of Willcox confronted state regulations that would’ve halted new groundwater irrigation in the largely agricultural area, voters and special interest groups mobilized to defeat the ballot measure by almost two to one.

They acknowledged that, as in other rural areas of the state, more groundwater was being pumped out of the Willcox Basin than was naturally refilled, and they agreed something should be done about that overdrafting.

But bringing the area under the state's existing rules, as the measure proposed to do, wouldn't give the rural community enough control to guide development in a way that differed from more urban areas like Phoenix or Tucson.

Meanwhile, as petitions circulated and public meetings convened around Willcox, those who could afford it submitted proposals to drill more. Applications for new irrigation wells in the Willcox Basin nearly tripled over the year prior, with some proposing wells nearly twice as deep and with more pumping capacity than is normal for the area, according to an AZCIR analysis of application data from the Arizona Department of Water Resources.


Similar scenarios have played out across the state in recent years alongside growing calls for new regulation: When local conversations about groundwater regulation take place, a surge of well applications follows.

The Douglas Basin, for instance, which in 2022 had a similar vote to bring the region’s unregulated areas under existing state regulations, had more applications that year than any since the last major groundwater legislation was passed in the 1980s.

And in 2019, when the Mohave County West Basin Water Users Study Committee was formed after the area near Kingman saw out-of-state operations start large, corporate-owned farms, applications ticked up in the Hualapai Valley basin as well.

“The minute that anybody gets wind of (regulation), they're gonna go pull permits," said La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin, who saw the same scenario play out in the western Arizona county’s rural areas. “The panic of: ‘Oh my god, here comes regulation. We better hurry up and get our permits now.’”

Since taking office in January, Gov. Katie Hobbs has placed a renewed focus on the state’s lack of rural groundwater regulation, revamping a council of stakeholders who recently put forward policy recommendations in an attempt to break a yearslong legislative stalemate. But with the October departure of the state’s largest farming lobby and state Sen. Sine Kerr from the council, experts contend most of those recommendations have little chance of making their way through the Legislature.

Local farmers, government officials and water experts worry that further delay in legislation will allow larger farms, which already dominate local conversations about regulation in rural areas, to continue drilling additional wells. The tactic, which existing regulations allow, lets those with enough resources expand their share of groundwater before any future regulation bars expansion in areas facing overdraft.

Even a handful of these deeper wells with higher capacity pumps can extract so much water from the surrounding basin that shallower ones can no longer reach the aquifer at all, cutting off smaller farms and homes from their water supply. A state study of the Willcox Basin released in December shows that the average well is no longer deep enough to reach the water table.

Philip Bashaw, CEO of the Arizona Farm Bureau—the group that left the governor’s water council—said the organization wants to solve the problem in an incremental way that avoids what he called negative economic consequences, especially for those who rely on groundwater in the most threatened basins.

“We didn't get here overnight, and we're not going to resolve the issue overnight, unless we wanted to create economic destruction,” he said, adding that even metering requirements can end up being burdensome. Such measures become "a nonstarter for the agriculture community,” because they always end up leading to mandatory reductions in water usage, he said.

For those in rural areas already in overdraft, like within Cochise and Mohave counties, though, a reduction in usage is precisely the point.

“It has to be a framework that's going to allow for conservation measures to actually work,” said Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter. “You can't come in and say, ’We're using this much water right now, and we always want to use this much water, and we're just going to make everybody else conserve whatever needs to be conserved.’ That makes the whole framework fail.”

The sun sets near farms in the Dendora Valley sub-basin near Dateland, Ariz., on Nov. 29, 2023. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
The sun sets near farms in the Dendora Valley sub-basin near Dateland, Ariz., on Nov. 29, 2023. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

The 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which still governs groundwater usage in Arizona, gave the state two primary regulatory tools: the Active Management Area, which has a slate of conservation requirements but was originally designed for more populous areas like Phoenix and Tucson, and the Irrigation Non-expansion Area, which limits new irrigation in areas imminently threatened by overdrafting.

These tools have been broadly effective in slowing groundwater depletion for regulated areas, even as the state’s population has more than doubled since their enactment. But they don’t easily translate to, and were never intended for, rural communities that want to prioritize agriculture over municipal growth. After four decades and a series of failed legislative efforts, the state’s rural groundwater basins remain largely unregulated.

And a key metric that would let the state apply existing regulations to rural areas seeking them—the extent of groundwater overdraft—is nearly impossible to know, because the Arizona Department of Water Resources hasn’t been able to collect enough data. In response to the Great Recession, Arizona leaders further hampered the state’s ability to make informed decisions by more than halving the agency’s staffing budget.

Though the Legislature recently gave the department money to conduct new, simplified studies of the state’s 51 basins, Attorney General Kris Mayes accused the department of failing to carry out the more robust hydrogeologic studies that could help prompt state regulation. The department has disputed Mayes' claim, saying it has consistently fulfilled its 'statutory duty.'

An area can vote on whether to establish an Active Management Area directly, as Willcox did, but the bar for state-initiated regulation is much higher. The department’s interpretation of current law doesn’t let the agency consider projected water use to halt new irrigation in an area, which further limits its ability to establish regulatory areas, according to Sarah Porter, Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy.

In other words, a basin must already be in trouble before the state can regulate it.

“And once you have that problem,” Porter said, “it's really hard to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Frustrated by the state’s inaction, and fearing another rush for access to groundwater from large farms like those that moved into his area in 2015, Mohave County Supervisor Lingenfelter worked with the U.S. Geological Survey to collect the data necessary to prove his area was in need of an Irrigation Non-expansion Area.

Although the regulation allows existing groundwater pumping to remain as is, it effectively preserves the unsustainable situation that put the aquifer in danger in the first place.

The imperfect solution was a bitter pill for local Mohave County farmers, but it stopped additional irrigation and a worsening of the groundwater deficit, at least for now. Out-of-state investment firms behind larger farms in the area are attempting to undo the regulation in court, calling the state's determination for regulating the basin “arbitrary and capricious” and an “abuse of discretion.”

Micah Spencer, a Hualapai Valley farmer in Mohave County who favored the regulation, said he is frustrated that he must now put future plans for his farm on hold.

“It’s kind of like we're getting punished for, essentially, the state not taking care of the situation before it got out of hand,” Spencer said. “Because now I can’t expand where we're at, and I'm only five acres, but I'm treated like a corporate farm that has 5,000 acres.”

Lingenfelter, like Spencer, would prefer a more flexible set of rules that prioritizes local control and the needs of rural communities. But a pair of lawmakers has stymied multiple attempts to establish local groundwater boards to manage groundwater, he said.

State Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, and Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, have repeatedly used their positions as legislative committee chairs to act as “gatekeepers” for the interests of large farms, blocking former Republican state Rep. Regina Cobb’s Rural Management Area bill since 2020.

“They haven't had to come in and try to work something out, because they know that any bill that we've introduced is just gonna die,” Lingenfelter said, adding that he and officials from a coalition of other counties, including La Paz, have invited the lawmakers to discussions each year.

Neither Griffin nor Kerr responded to requests for comment.

A farm in the Dendora Valley sub-basin near Dateland, Ariz., is highlighted by patches of deep green against the surrounding desert landscape on Nov. 29, 2023. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR
A farm in the Dendora Valley sub-basin near Dateland, Ariz., is highlighted by patches of deep green against the surrounding desert landscape on Nov. 29, 2023. Photo by Brendon Derr | AZCIR

After voters rejected the 2022 ballot measure to establish an Active Management Area in Willcox, residents and local leaders started working on regulation that would effectively commodify water in the basin.

The effort—spearheaded by County Supervisor Peggy Judd, who was recently indicted for interference with an election officer and conspiracy during the 2020 election—was inspired by the management of the Edwards aquifer in Texas, where water rights can be bought, sold and leased.

Part of the appeal for Cochise County farmers is the ability to keep control local.

Willcox isn’t asking the state to just give them another tool, as is being proposed by the governor’s rural groundwater committee, Judd said. “We're asking for authority to see what we can do in our own valley, with our own people, and our own water, which we own. Because it's our land.”

This solution favors the idea that one owns the groundwater under their property, a notion contradicted by current law. The precedent, an ideological flashpoint, has been largely disregarded by strong private property advocates like Griffin and the Arizona Farm Bureau.

“They're trying to perpetuate this belief that there's this private property right when it comes to groundwater, and that's simply not the case,” said Lingenfelter, adding that treating groundwater as private property is “absolutely contrary” to equitable conservation and doesn’t incentivize large corporate farms to come to the table.

The longer it takes to break through legislative gridlock, experts say, the more opportunity the largest and well-financed farms will have to increase their access to groundwater—exacerbating the overdraft any future regulation will need to address and boxing out smaller farms and residents from groundwater as shallower wells continue to dry up.

If legislation stalls in familiar ways in 2024, Hobbs could use the state’s water department to declare the most threatened areas of the state under existing regulations—the ones widely seen as overbearing and ill-fitted for the job.

“Rural Arizona shouldn’t be deprived of water security and reliability,” the governor’s office said via email, adding that “the status quo is not an option, and we will not continue down an unsustainable path.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how Irrigation Non-expansion Areas restrict groundwater irrigation. INA restrictions prohibit additional acreage of irrigation but do not cap the amount of groundwater withdrawal.

This article first appeared on Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

HB2857 – Rural groundwater management

Bill description provided by BillTrack50.com

Sponsored by Chris Mathis (D) and Priya Sundareshan (D)

NOTE: This bill did not pass

This bill amends the Arizona Revised Statutes pertaining to the management of groundwater in the state. The bill empowers the director of the Department of Water Resources to formulate plans and programs, investigate proposals and practices, collect information, and regulate activities related to the use of surface water and groundwater. The director is also permitted to acquire and dispose of property as necessary, including rights-of-way and water rights.
In addition to this, the bill establishes Rural Groundwater Management Areas (RGMAs), which are areas that are deemed to need management practices to manage the existing groundwater supply for future or current needs. For these RGMAs, Rural Groundwater Management Area Councils are to be formed. These councils are to adopt groundwater management goals, develop management plans, and cooperate with other organizations in managing water resources.
The bill also mandates measures to report on and reduce groundwater use in these areas, including water conservation programs and restrictions on the locations of wells.  The bill includes provisions for judicial review and appeal of decisions made under its authority, and sets out penalties for noncompliance with its measures.