COCHISE COUNTY, AZ — Wells in communities throughout Southern and Eastern Arizona are going dry and people who live there are now working to change that.
Cochise County mostly sits on two aquifers: the Willcox Basin and the Douglas Basin. And both are in trouble from years of pulling out more water than is being put back in.
Groundwater in the Willcox Basin is the only water source for much of the northern part of Cochise County and the Douglas Basin provides for most of the southern portion. With no limits on how much can be pumped, homeowner Mark Spencer, who lives on the Willcox Basin, says there is only one law governing the water. "It's called the law of the jungle. He with the deepest pockets and the deepest straw wins."
Some of the deepest straws belong to Coronado Farms and Turkey Creek Dairy which are very large cattle operations owned by Riverview LLP based in Minnesota. Because the groundwater usage is not required to be reported, there is no way to know exactly how much water is being used but an ABC15 review of state records show the company owns more than 100 wells in the Sulphur Springs Valley with many at depths more than 1,000 feet and the capacity to pump 2,000 gallons per minute.
Riverview LLP did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
"I'm not against the dairy. If it can be done right, the dairy is doing it right," said Spencer. "They are farming as efficiently as it can be done today. The problem is — the hard cold truth is — that you can't raise 120,000 cows in the desert with a confined aquifer that we have without having an effect on everybody.
The area also has high water usage from dozens of large nut orchards and alfalfa farms that also use high-capacity wells.
Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told ABC15 groundwater levels in the Willcox Basin have been dropping up to seven feet a year for several years. It relies completely on rain for recharge, has been in a 22-year mega-drought, and continues to have increased pumping.
"Absent some fix out into the future in which renewable water supplies can be brought into that area, there'll be issues in terms of those declining groundwater levels," Buschatzke said.
That fix could be decades away.
Area resident Cheryl Knott said new nut orchards are moving in all the time and wells are running dry today.
"This feels urgent," Knott said. "It feels like there's a shift in the scale of what's happening."
It's a shift that spurred her into action with the Arizona Water Defenders.
"It's a very small group, we have a tiny budget, but we're concerned, and we're doing our best to try to do something about it," she said.
The group is working to gather enough signatures to put a regulated Active Management Area (AMA) on the November ballot for Willcox Basin and the neighboring Douglas Basin which is already designated as Non-Irrigation Expansion (INA) which does not allow for additional wells to be drilled. Despite that restriction, the Douglas Basin is also dropping precipitously.
The group confirmed with Cochise County Recorder that the AMA measure for the Willcox Basin will be on the November ballot. Knott said they are still working to gather enough signatures for the Douglas Basin.
"It's really the only tool we have to use," Knott said.
State law gives citizens the ability to implement AMAs through a vote, but it also gives the ADWR director the ability to create one if there is land subsidence, a need to preserve groundwater for future use, or the quality of water this threatened by pumping.
Both basins exhibit those qualities, but the state has not acted. ABC15 asked Director Buschatzke why that was the case.
"You have to get people to buy into the regulation and follow it. It's kind of like the speed limit, right? If you don't follow the speed limit, you can't pull every car over, that's exceeding the speed limit, you have to have buy-in by the public," he said.
And Cochise County is an area where very few have bought into water regulation historically.
When the issue was explored in the mid-2010s it pitted neighbor against neighbor and people in the area are still acutely aware of how divisive the topic is.
State legislator Gail Griffin (R-Hereford) represents the area and has repeatedly blocked legislation to address rural groundwater pumping.
After agreeing to an interview with ABC15 she did not follow through.
But Griffin is not the person who isn't on board with creating an AMA.
Rancher Sonia Gasho who also serves on the Cochise County Farm Bureau, told ABC15 an AMA is not the answer because it is the most restrictive regulation available through statute.
Amongst other things, it would monitor large agricultural wells, possibly prevent irrigation of new acreage, and the governor would appoint a council of local residents to make suggestions to the director for a plan to get the basin in balance. Gasho fears the restrictions in those plans would force small operators out.
"The dairy and some of the larger tree growers will be fine because they have deeper pockets," she told ABC15. "The smaller farmers are the ones who are actually going to be put out of business."
She said her well went dry so she understands how scary it is when it happens.
"It's also scary as a farmer or rancher to think you could lose your livelihood, " she said.
Gasho wants stakeholders to agree on a different option like creating a water district.
Spencer said he is open to ideas other than an AMA but the basin and the people who rely on it can't wait any longer.
"A lot of people move here; This is their last stand. They've invested their life savings," he said. "This trouble's me. People move here and then their well goes. What do they do? That's their life savings. Move? they can't sell their property. It's got no water. Our politicians need to understand this. This is really what's happening here on the ground. It's not a game."