WeatherImpact Earth


Wells running dry and emptying pockets in Cochise County

Posted at 9:11 PM, May 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-27 15:52:21-04

All along highway 191 in Cochise County, there are crop circles as far as the eye can see.

A few miles off the road, farmland gives way to what can only be described as a forest in the desert.

"I planted probably 100 to 200 trees a year for quite a few years," said Greg Freeman, who owns the 11-acre property that houses the forest of dozens of types of trees — from conifer to oak to bamboo.

"I figured what better than to grow things to feed myself and make a living doing it?"

But the fruit he grew wasn't able to survive the freezes that he said were frequent back then.

Though fruit didn't work out, he continued planting trees to block his house from the wind, and, in the process, it became his life's work.

"It's making habitats for a lot of animals that are increasingly struggling with the environmental changes that are going on drought and lack of habitat because of farmland and so on," he said.

Perhaps the only thing more important than his trees is the water beneath them.

Freeman's Sunizona property sits on top of the Willcox Basin, an aquifer that stretches half the length of the Sulphur Springs Valley.

And it's dropping fast.

Freeman admits the forest uses a lot of that water.

"Yes, I do use quite a lot of water. And I used to find that troubling," but he said now, not so much. "For one thing, it's all a matter of scale-how much water you're using, and what do you get from that water. To me, when you're raising corn and crops to feed cows, I don't consider that as much value because I think it's something that shouldn't be done. And it's contributing to the demise of the planet. I don't use very much compared to what they use."

Freeman was talking about two large dairy farms near his home. Coronado Farms and Turkey Creek Dairy are huge cattle operations that also share the Willcox Basin.  They are owned by Minnesota-based Riverview LLP and first arrived in the Willcox area in 2014.

Though not the only large water user in the area, they certainly are the most visible. They don't just raise cattle, they grow the food to feed them, and that takes a lot of water. State records show the company owns more than 100 wells across the Sulphur Springs Valley — some as deep as 1,200 feet into the ground and can pump up to 2,000 gallons of water a minute.

Riverview did not respond to ABC15's multiple requests for comment.

Freeman's well gets about 20 gallons a minute.

"The water level was at 290 (feet in 2016). And now the water level's at about 330," Freeman said. "So it's dropped 40-plus feet in what, six years."

Hydrologist Keith Nelson with the Department of Water Resources studies the Willcox Basin. He calls the condition of the basin alarming.

"It's really a groundwater mining situation," he said.

According to information from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, since 2010, 302 large-capacity agricultural wells have been drilled. That's more than the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s combined.

Nelson said the overdraft situation in the Wilcox Basin is very extreme.

"For every gallon that goes in, four gallons go out, so it's a significant imbalance," Nelson said.

It's an imbalance that is literally causing the earth to open up and Wells to dry up.

Twenty years ago Lee Merchen built his retirement home in The town of McNeal after serving 30 years in the Army. He says there wasn't much out here until about five years ago.

"There's a whole lot of people pumping water that weren't pumping water when we moved out here," he said. "Now there are pecan orchards everywhere. And crop circles all over."

Many are using 1,000-foot-deep wells including one right next door to him. These well went dry a few weeks ago. So did Kyle Brazeal's.

"Woke up one day, turn on the water, nothing happened," he said.

His family lives six miles away in Elfrida. They went without water for a month.

"Filling up milk jugs, you know empty milk jugs at our neighbor's house and stuff and hauling them back and forth every day just so we can flush the toilets or wash our hands."

In all, it cost him $40,000 to get a 448-foot-deep well.

Neighbor Neil Petersen says most people around here can't afford that. So they are connected to his well at McNeal Water Company.

"We're kind of the lifeblood of the community," he said.

The company's 250-foot well will still produce water for its 27 customers. Neil just isn't sure for how long.

"The person who's got the biggest pump and the deepest pockets wins currently, because there's you know, it's the wild west," he said.

Back up the highway, Freeman says his latest well will likely be his last.

"I think that's as deep as I'm going. If it dries up before I die, then I don't know what I'm going to do."