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Arizona's growing rural groundwater crisis

Posted at 10:42 AM, May 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 13:42:47-04

PHOENIX — With a megadrought across the west, Arizona is hardly the only state with water supply issues, but experts say it is unique.

"The really striking thing about Arizona is that there's no one in charge for a lot of the state," Rebecca Nelson told ABC15. She was a water policy researcher who studied groundwater in the western U.S. at Stanford University and is now at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

She describes Arizona's groundwater policy as "swiss cheese."

The cheese: the five urban areas of Arizona where there is regulation of groundwater pumping including the Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott along with Pinal and Santa Cruz Counties.

The holes: nearly the entire remainder of the state that allows rural groundwater to be pumped infinitely.

"Eventually, though, as water levels decline, people's wells can go dry," she said.

And they are going dry in communities all around Arizona.

But overdraft of groundwater is not new in the state. Prior to the 1970s groundwater was used almost exclusively and aquifers were draining quickly.

"We knew we had to get something done," said Kathleen Ferris, who is now a Senior Fellow with the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU. She served as the state's second director of the Arizona Department of Resources, but before that, her job was to help get Arizona groundwater usage under control.

"The Secretary of the Interior said, 'If you don't pass a Groundwater Management Act, then I'm not going to continue to push for funding and completion of the Central Arizona Project,'" she said.

And few things were more important at the time than the Central Arizona Project, which would build 336 miles of canals and aqueducts to deliver Colorado River water to Phoenix, Pinal County, and Tucson.

After four attempts, the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 was drafted and passed. But there was a catch.

"A lot of rural areas did not want to be included. They did not want the regulation," Ferris said.

To get the deal done the most densely populated basins became regulated Active Management Areas.

Everywhere else did not, except for the Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas (INA) that were designated for Douglas and Joseph City areas that were supposed to prohibit the drilling of new wells.

It's a tradeoff that paid off until about 10 years ago when out of state farms started moving into those unregulated areas.

"I call it industrial agriculture," Ferris said. "It's not family farms. It's big corporate farming, bringing massive amounts of new land under cultivation and, and growing completely on groundwater."

It's an unsustainable situation according to Ferris, with limited time and few options to fix it.

"We have to get our legislature to act, it's as simple as that."

So far key legislators have not been willing to act and as the water table drops more wells go dry.

On Thursday at 6 p.m. ABC15 is bringing a story from a part of Arizona that is living that reality.