Contrary to past Arizona civilizations, we now live on borrowed water. Precipitation that feeds our water resources no longer sustains the needs of Arizona’s population and agriculture. We borrow water from the reservoirs we built by damning rivers, and we borrow water from the Colorado river and from Arizona’s few remaining rivers flowing year-round. We also borrow water from the aquifers below ground, sinking wells deeper and deeper to pump groundwater.
Arizona law recognizes two types of water: surface water (streams, creeks, rivers, lakes) and ground water. Most perennial streams and creeks no longer flow year-round. Ground water levels have diminished considerably during the last 50 years. Use of surface water is adjudicated by the state, based on a seniority system: the water needs of the property owners who settled first along the surface water body have to be satisfied before the needs of those who settled there later, regardless of whether those later settlers are upstream or downstream of the senior water claimant. In this way, surface water rights are quantified.
In contrast, ground water rights are not quantified except in special Active Management Areas (AMAs) and a few other special water districts. There are no AMAs in the Verde Valley. A property owner here has the right to sink a well to whatever depth they can afford, and pump unlimited quantity of water as long as it is used for a ‘beneficial’ purpose. The assumption has been that rain and snow would replenish these groundwater resources forever. This no longer is true.
Arizona’s share of Colorado river water has been reduced drastically, and more reduction is expected. Water flow rate of Arizona perennial rivers, including the Verde River, has decreased. Formerly productive wells are running dry. The demand for water has clearly exceeded the supply, a supply that is dwindling fast due to climate change.
However, population growth has not slowed and is still being embraced as desirable, including in the Verde Valley. Arizona must come to terms with managing water use from all our resources throughout the state, including rural Yavapai County. This requires conducting research to find out how much water there is below ground, where exactly, and how much it is recharged by precipitation.
Yavapai County has scores of regulations regarding land use, but none regarding use of ground water. Why not? Ask the County Board of Supervisors or Development Services or the Planning & Zoning Committee. They all will tell you that in their deliberations of a permit application they cannot consider the subject of water – fresh or waste water – because water is regulated by the state.
As noted above, ground water is regulated in Active Management Areas and other special water districts but not in most of rural Arizona. You can pump to your heart’s delight from a well on your property, as long as the water use is ‘beneficial’ – a use not further explained. In consequence, huge international corporate farms have moved into Arizona, including northwest of Flagstaff. They have sunk wells 1000 and 2000 feet deep. They pump untold millions of gallons of groundwater to grow water-thirsty crops on desert land, largely for export.
Unfortunately, any attempt to limit pumping, report on the amount being pumped, or even just requiring annual reports of the groundwater table in rural Arizona is being squashed by the Arizona legislature.
To make matters worse, our area also is being invaded by developers who want to construct megadevelopments with thousands of residential units. In terms of water usage, these are the equivalents of megafarms.
We in the Verde Valley rely on ground water for our needs. We need to get involved in the water issue and in looking at land use and growth planning through the lens of long-term groundwater supply. We need to consider fair limits of groundwater use, and demand that our government officials no longer defer responsibility to the state that favors agribusiness and developers. Instead, those officials need to protect County residents and small farmers. They should enact appropriate land and water use laws, and plan growth consistent with protection of long-term groundwater supply.
KSB urges you to become familiar with the groundwater issues facing Northern Arizona and to let your local, state and national officials know that this is a critical issue on which you base your decisions on who to vote for.
KSB refers you to the following resources:
- This article in the 2020 April issue of High Country News discusses how climate change and unregulated wells are depleting the West’s groundwater reserves.
- This article from the Arizona Republic published by AZCentral analyzes the consequences of unlimited groundwater pumping.
- This article about evapotranspiration and how it further depletes groundwater.
- Finally, this article from New Atlas discusses the likelihood that the entire western United States is entering a period of prolonged and severe drought.