BISBEE — Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbit is known for his knowledge of the water situation in the desert state and his efforts to protect groundwater supplies and natural resources, so he seemed the perfect speaker for the Arizona County Supervisors Association Conference last month to talk about the issues of water shortages the state faces and even provide possible answers.
Babbitt, also former Arizona Attorney General and Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, delivered a thought provoking commentary which caught the attention of two members of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors in attendance, Peggy Judd and Tom Borer.
Babbitt, now 81, worked as governor on many issues, including the passage of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, which changed the state’s system of water regulation, along with the formation of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and Department of Environmental Quality, and the expansion of the state’s park system.
He was also deeply involved with the establishment of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA), the first in the nation, in 1988.
“I’m always going to be involved with water. Once you get a water buffalo into the water, you can’t get him back out,” he joked in an interview with the Herald/Review.
At the conference, he mentioned the problems facing rural counties with no groundwater pumping regulations in place, and specifically mentioned Willcox and the northeastern part of Cochise County as prime examples of the shortcomings of having no regulations and no natural recharge of the aquifer from rain.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey Report done in 2013, “A wide range of interested parties is concerned about the future availability and sustainability of the water supply. Increased groundwater pumping could have several undesirable consequences, including loss of available groundwater storage, increased cost of pumping, the need to deepen existing wells and add new wells, impaired quality of drinking water, land subsidence, and damage to the riparian habitat of the San Pedro River. An improved understanding of the hydrologic system and of groundwater–surface-water interactions in the region will improve the capability of resource managers to optimally use this important resource and to minimize or mitigate the effects of development.”
Babbitt suggested during his talk that rural counties not covered under the protections of the Active Management Areas for urban counties should have the ability to control the use of local groundwater resources.
He sees that as a failure of the state to include the lower-populated counties, he added.
“Why shouldn’t county governments regulate ground water?” he asked. “The state could enact rural groundwater management legislation, then delegate authority to the counties.”
Judd said in an interview, “It was surreal. I am a woman from Willcox. I’ve lived here my whole life. His message was timely and true to what we are experiencing. It is like he had talked to me to get his information out.”
Judd, who represents a huge swath of northern Cochise County from New Mexico to Pima County, is aware of the agricultural expansion in Willcox and the consequence of private wells going dry in the Willcox Basin.
“We know we can’t put enough water back in the ground to equal what is taken out,” she said. “But, we’re going to have to try something. I stand as a witness with my constituents, farmers and local industrial users that our water is being used up, not wasted at an unsustainable rate. I agree with Bruce Babbitt that in our valley there is no other source of water. Our groundwater is plentiful, but can’t last forever.”
She did take exception to unmentioned efforts, and added, “He did not give the good people that own and operate the (Coronado/Riverview) dairy credit for the contributions they make to our economy and for the calculated water conservation methods they use faithfully,” she said.
“I was able to remind many of my colleagues that one dairy uses the same amount of water used on one golf course. As golf courses are an accepted part of our desert culture, this helped to put his warning into perspective.”
She is also aware of the controversy over the Villages at Vigneto multi-purpose 12,000-plus acre development in Benson, which has the potential to impact a different aquifer, the mid-San Pedro Watershed Basin.
Babbitt noted in an interview, “The first, most important thing to do is to persuade the people to realize a regulatory framework is needed to protect their water supplies.”
The county supervisors did try to establish the Upper San Pedro Water District and put it to the voters in 2010, but it failed, as reported in the Herald/Review at the time. Hydrologists and conservationists supported the measure, as well as developer Castle and Cook’s Rick Coffman and other businesses. Residents within the boundary were concerned of being held to a maximum water use or being charged for water use, though nothing existed in the referendum to suggest such would happen.
Things went differently in Bowie years ago. The people in Bowie decided they needed control and formed a water improvement district. Every property owner in the district pays fees to maintain the pump and infrastructure. As water declined below existing wells in operation for decades, banding together to have one deep well serve the community at large solved the problem.
Babbitt recalled, “They got together and said ‘this really is a problem and it’s our problem.’ We met for months to get it established.”
But an attempt to control groundwater by the people in the San Simon area to form a non-irrigation expansion district failed.
“ADWR said they did not meet the criteria for the district,” Babbitt said. “It was a long hearing and though it was not approved, they at least tried to control their water.”
The only non-irrigation expansion district in the county is in the Douglas Basin, formed some 40 years ago when wells went dry as agricultural uses increased, he explained.
“Everybody agreed it was an appropriate action to take,” he pointed out.
According to a presentation last year by Susanna Eden, University of Arizona water resource center, “In eastern Cochise County, overdraft is causing subsidence and earth fissures. Pumping costs may soon be too high for farmers and domestic wells have already gone dry.
“Well owners reported 18 wells had gone dry from 2008 to 2014; this underestimates the actual number. A boom in nut tree orchards is increasing groundwater withdrawals. Pecan acreage in Arizona doubled in the past six to seven years to 25,000 acres, most in Willcox area.”
Even though a Willcox Groundwater Conservation Area was proposed, the measure failed, continued Eden. “Residents rejected the option because it would restrict growth of the wine industry. The potential for economic growth and limited water needs of grapes make this crop desirable.”
Babbitt sees legislative action on groundwater an ever–more important issue to “give all counties the authority to regulate groundwater extraction. Maybe it won’t go anywhere, but at least it should be tried. Maybe have some degree of state oversight every five years.”
“It’s their futures. Their economies at risk. They should give it a try,” he added.
Judd reasoned, “It is next to impossible unless hundreds of Willcox area residents rise up to support it. It may even take thousands. I believe we can come up with a permissive, user driven, legal instrument that will allow for smart growth even in our Ag industries.
“Education is a key to this battle we will fight, so I am proposing a series of educational workshops, but this plan is in the very early stages. If we face the legislature ill-prepared, we won’t succeed again.”
She went on to say the county does not want to control water. Instead, she sees the county role as a provider of infrastructure recharge projects and to help community efforts “to create and maintain water districts.”
Solutions could arise from connections to water companies, she continued. Nonprofit, individual, corporate and inter-government partnerships are essential to the county’s success in such efforts and “will create collaboration and alliances that will help with growth and our economic sustainability.”
“My fear is the state will not come up with viable solutions until it’s too late,” she said. “But, if they come around with something that will help, I will be their biggest champion to get it applied in our communities.”
Supervisor Ann English, who did not attend the conference, stated in an email, “Requirements by government for rural areas never seem to work without the constituents seeing the need. Water is no different than building codes or land issues. We cannot and should not make requirements we cannot enforce. Recently there has been a lot of press about water and who to blame for depleting the resource, but there does not seem to be a move by the state to seek solutions in our area.”
Borer saw Babbitt’s proposal in a positive light.
“Water management in any part of Arizona is one the most complex and challenging endeavors one can take on,” he said. “The issues and concerns of water management touch everyone in Arizona and there is no one size fits all solution. Therefore, I like the concept of moving management under county control so that solutions for regional challenges can be worked on at the local level.
“However, local control comes with widespread responsibility, and if not done properly, could be very costly to the counties.”