WeatherImpact Earth


Lax AZ groundwater laws threaten rural groundwater supply

Posted at 7:20 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-07 00:08:29-04

One of the last preserved stretches of Historic Route 66 winds through downtown Kingman. Formed in the 1880s, the former railroad town sits in the farthest corner of northwest Arizona that you can get before reaching the Nevada border.

Today tourism is the draw, but what has sustained the 33,000 people in the city and the estimated 35,000 people in surrounding areas, is the water beneath it.

"Our water source is groundwater," said Kingman City Manager Ron Foggin. "It drives this community; we thrive because of it. And we have to be wise with the use of it."

Foggin said they take the preservation of that water very seriously. Recently the city began drilling dry wells to capture rainwater and installed smart meters to detect residential leaks.

"We also have a pretty large capital project that will inject well water back or put water back into the aquifer; over a million gallons a day," he said.

The problem is what they put in could likely be pumped out by someone else and they wouldn't know who or how much is used.

"It is a resource that has to be managed. And it has to be managed and controlled by everybody that's utilizing it," he said.

But for much of rural Arizona's groundwater, that management is not happening. This portion of Mohave County relies completely on the Hualapai Valley Basin for its water supply.

It was never really a concern until 2012 when things changed.

County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter said farming operations from as close as California and as far as Saudi Arabia moved into Mohave County. And he said they just pop up out of nowhere.

He showed ABC15 around areas north of Kingman where a large pistachio farm was planted less than two years ago.

"All these trees are now you know, drawing upon our finite groundwater supply. And they will be for years. This farm didn't have to go through any sort of planning and zoning process," he said.

Arizona has no regulation of its groundwater for agriculture in rural areas which covers about 80% of the state.

"You can come in and you can drill as many wells as you want. Pump as much as you want. Not have to tell anybody."

And the secret is out.

Lingenfelter points to state well data that shows a significant increase in large capacity or non-exempt wells, which is defined as having the capacity to pump more than 35 gallons per minute.

Prior to 2013 county analysis shows there were 97 wells on the basin.

By May 2021, an additional 85 were drilled.

"The average household uses about 250 gallons of water a day. A lot of these wells that we're talking about are drilled at a size that are like 3,000 gallons per minute, 3,500 gallons per minute," he said.

There is no way to know how much water is actually being used because large agricultural wells don't have to meter them or report usage but educated estimates from Mohave County put usage at 34,734 acre-feet in 2021. County officials believe that number is with only 10% of the farms' available land being cultivated.

For perspective, the City of Kingman averages 8,000 acre-feet per year for a city of 33,000 people.

Efforts to monitor how much is actually being used by large corporate farms are going nowhere.

"We have not been able to get a hearing at the legislature for the last several years. Not even a debate, no discussion, nothing," Lingenfelter said.

It's not for lack of trying.

Over the years, Democrats and Republicans at the legislature have introduced bills to address the issue. Some, repeatedly.

For four years in a row Representative Regina Cobb, of Kingman, said she has dropped a bill that would allow county supervisors to implement Rural Management Areas for groundwater basins that are at risk in their area. She said a committee of local residents, farmers and officials would design a plan to recharge the aquifer and bring it back to sustainable levels.

"It might be making some injection wells in the area. Conservation and recharging should be all part of that," she said. " It could be less development in that area, whatever that is for that aquifer. That's the basin at risk. They can decide that. Then they have to send it back to the state."

Cobb said a study committee of farmers, ranchers, conservationists, and officials came up with the recommendations to include in HB2662 this session. But it still did not receive a hearing.

In fact, none of Cobb's bills have ever received a hearing in the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water committee.

ABC15 reached out to committee chair Gail Griffin to find out why. She did not respond to our questions.

But the Arizona Farm Bureau did. It opposes the legislation. Spokesperson Chelsea McGuire sent ABC15 a statement saying in part:

"Attempts to regulate groundwater must represent an appropriate balance between the unique needs of local communities, including all agricultural users in those communities, and oversight by capable government entities. The concepts proposed in this legislation do not strike that balance."

Mohave County officials have also twice petitioned the Arizona Department of Resources to declare an Irrigation Non-Expansion Area (INA) which would prevent additional large wells from being drilled. It has been denied twice.

"The INA is very restrictive. And it only allows you to look at the moment in time. It doesn't allow you to go perspective," Cobb said. Basically, since there is still useful water in the basin the state cannot stop new wells from going in.

Now folks in Mohave County are pinning their hopes on Governor Doug Ducey to include rural groundwater management in his plan to create a state water authority this year.

"Doing nothing is not an option. We need to do something, and I think now's the time. It was time probably 10 years ago," Cobb said.

But nothing is exactly what has happened in the past and it's exactly what Lingenfelter is afraid of.

"We don't have access to Colorado River water, we don't have access to the canal system. This is it. We depend on this. This is the lifeblood for us, and there is no plan B," he said.