In the late 1990s, Steven and Lucia Kisiel bought 20 acres of land with a new well in Cochise County, a rural area in southeastern Arizona. The couple built a straw bale house with their own hands and started growing produce for themselves and others in the area.
In 2013, Kisiel turned on his kitchen faucet and water sputtered out along with fine sediment, a sign that his well wasn’t pumping enough water. Soon after, his pump shut off, and he had the well redrilled to be 200 feet deeper.
For Kisiel, like many residents in rural Arizona, it is not a matter of if his well will go dry again, but when. Eventually, he will either have to drill a new well because his current one can’t be redrilled, or resort to paying to have water hauled to his home, he said.
“I didn’t expect this because when we first bought here things looked pretty good as far as the water,” said Kisiel.
With a mega-drought brought about by climate change exacerbating the problem of rapidly declining groundwater in a fast-growing state, Kisiel is now part of a movement fighting to have more than 2,600 square miles in the rural Sulphur Springs Valley added to the only five areas designated to be regulated 40 years ago in populous parts of the state.
Arizona is the only state in the Colorado River Basin that does not regulate all of its groundwater, and with water scarcity becoming increasingly dire, adding Sulphur Springs to the management areas—considered a distinct possibility this year—could set the stage for other rural areas to follow suit and try to curb rapidly decreasing groundwater levels.
Kisiel is one of 1.5 million people who live in parts of Arizona where groundwater is their main or primary source of water. In 80 percent of the state’s land area, outside of sovereign tribal lands, there are no protections for groundwater, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund.
This has led to pumping far exceeding natural refilling of aquifers in some parts of the state, resulting in residential wells drying up and significant land subsidence. The decline in groundwater levels is likely to continue, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. This puts rural communities’ water, environmental and economic future at risk.
The issue in Arizona is not new, but it is intensifying, and the climate-amplified drought is only expected to worsen in the next few years.
According to the state water department, the Willcox Basin in the Sulphur Springs Valley, which services Cochise water users, has the highest land subsidence rate in the state. There are no other water sources that could service Willcox water users and curb declining water levels.
Kisiel has gone door to door gathering petition signatures to have the addition of the Willcox and neighboring Douglas Basin as water management areas put on this fall’s ballot. Efforts to achieve this are not new, but this might be the year Cochise finally gets its groundwater protected. Last month, the Arizona Water Defenders, the political action committee leading the effort, turned in the required petitions to the County. The signatures could be certified as soon as next month. If approved, residents will have the chance to vote to finally have their groundwater protected.
In Kisiel’s area land has subsided more than five feet in 30 years, according to a 2019 land subsidence report by the state water department. Diminishing groundwater levels cause the land to subside, which can result in open ground fractures.
Demion Clinco, the owner of Sonoran Wines in Cochise, said that he’s held off expanding his business because he is concerned about the shrinking groundwater supply. The road to his winery was damaged by a large earth fissure about 10 feet deep, two feet wide and about a quarter of a mile long last summer. According to a 2018 report on land subsidence by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, there are about 42 miles of fissures in the Willcox area.
Groundwater use for irrigation throughout all of rural Arizona has stayed relatively stable over time with a slight increase in recent years according to estimates by the United States Geological Survey. The Arizona Department of Water Resources said the cause of any increase is not known.
The number of large wells drilled in Cochise peaked in the 2000s, but the amount of drilled wells for irrigation and industrial use more than tripled the decade after while new domestic wells dropped by two-thirds. In 2019, the highest number of large wells were drilled in the county in decades.
An investigation by The Arizona Republic in 2019 showed that having no limits on groundwater pumping in the rural parts of the state is attracting large out-of-state farming companies into Arizona, and they’re draining groundwater supplies. Clinco, like Kisiel, has noticed more and more vast fields popping up around the area in the last few years. Thousands of acres of corn, alfalfa, and nuts are grown in the county.
Residents also point fingers at Riverview LLP, a Minnesota-based dairy company that has two dairy farms in Cochise. According to an investigation by High Country News last year, the company has drilled close to 90 wells in Willcox and Douglas since 2015, most of which are more than 1,000 feet deep. Three are close to half a mile deep. Riverview did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
People who rely on water from these basins are scared of going into debt trying to get running water. They worry about property values declining, or not being able to pass down a livable home to their children and grandchildren, said Kisiel. The population has been steadily declining since 2010.
Vance Williams, a disabled veteran in Cochise, had his well run dry a year ago. He pays roughly $100 every 45 days for about 35 gallons of water a day from a private well for him and his daughter. Many of his neighbors have had to resort to the same measures.
The average Arizonan uses almost 150 gallons a day. The average water bill in Arizona is less than $40. Many haul water from farther away, something Williams might have to do in the near future as nearby residents are increasingly trying to protect their water, he said.
He considered redrilling his well, but he couldn’t afford it. Redrilling, or drilling a new well, could cost between $10,000 and $50,000, depending on the condition and depth of the well, which later needs to go deeper as water levels drop.
Reliance on groundwater is increasing as Colorado River water dwindles. Groundwater makes up about 40 percent of the state’s water sources. Among its fellow states in the Colorado River Basin—California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—only Arizona does not regulate all of its groundwater.
Arizona’s five designated “Active Management Areas” for groundwater are in the most populous regions of the state with more than 80 percent of Arizonans living in these areas. Little is available to manage groundwater outside of those areas. There are no limits on how much can be pumped as long as it is for “reasonable and beneficial use,” a broad enough rule that allows for excessive pumping of groundwater.
Experts, lawmakers and residents agree that the future of groundwater in rural areas needs to be secured. How that should happen is debated.
A bill by state Rep. Regina Cobb, a Republican who represents parts of eastern Maricopa County, would allow counties to establish a new kind of water management area where aquifers have been determined to be “at risk.” Local stakeholders would be able to plan how to manage the aquifer with technical support from the state and using public and private funds.
But this is the third year in a row that Cobb’s version of the bill has not been heard in committee.
Kisiel and other rural residents are tired of waiting for state intervention. They gathered signatures to add the two basins to the five areas regulated through the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.
While state law allows for more areas to be added to the original five by referendum, none have been since the law was passed.
“There should be far more options for communities to do that than there are now, but the residents in the Willcox and Douglas basins are doing exactly what they can given current laws,” said Zuzdas.
The petitions require the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters of the proposed area. The one for the Willcox Basin moved on to county review last month.
The county will finish reviewing at least one of the petitions as early as next month. If ratified, the Arizona Department of Water Resources will hold hearings in the community and set water management goals, said Rebekah Wilce, treasurer of Arizona Water Defenders.
The group is now shifting its efforts to collect more signatures for the Douglas Basin, which requires more signatures because of its larger population, according to Arizona Water Defenders.
Wells in which pumping is more than 35 gallons per minute would be regulated and monitored to slow down usage, and there would be an indefinite freeze on new irrigation expansion wells. Groundwater for domestic and other small-scale uses would not be affected by the freeze.
“The thing we really liked about this is it puts a freeze on irrigating any new acreage in that area until the election, and then if it passes, that freeze stays in place,” said Kisiel.
The establishment of a newly regulated groundwater basin could set the stage for other rural areas in the state grappling with dwindling groundwater to follow.
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Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter said at a press conference in February that the number of large wells in Mohave, which is in the northwestern corner of the state, has increased from 97 to 236 in the last decade. The vast majority of which are from commercial agriculture coming in from out of state, he added. He was speaking in favor of Cobb’s rural groundwater management bill.
For people in Sulphur Springs Valley, where the two basins sit, “it’s not a tough argument to make” that oversight is needed, Wilce said.
Wilce said that residents would probably have been more hesitant to support this effort in the past because “it’s a fiercely independent” community that usually does not favor more regulation as a solution to issues in their area.
“But at this point, it’s pretty clear that some kind of common-sense limitations and restrictions really were needed several years ago and certainly are needed now,” said Wilce.