AZ’s lax groundwater laws threaten rural groundwater supplies

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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 northwestern Arizona you can get before hitting the Nevada border.

Today, tourism is the attraction, but what has sustained the town’s 33,000 residents and an estimated 35,000 people in the surrounding areas is the water below.

“Our source of water is groundwater,” Kingman City Manager Ron Foggin said. “It’s the lifeblood of this community; we thrive on it. And we need to put it to good use.”

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

“We also have a fairly large capital project that will reinject well water or put water back into the aquifer; over a million gallons a day,” he said.

The problem is that what they put there could probably be pumped by someone else and they wouldn’t know who or how much is being used.

“It’s a resource that needs to be managed. And it needs to be managed and controlled by everyone who uses it,” he said.

But for much of rural Arizona’s groundwater, that management isn’t happening. This part of Mohave County is entirely dependent 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 farms from as close as California and as far away as Saudi Arabia have moved into Mohave County. And he said they come out of nowhere.

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

“All of these trees are now, you know, tapping into our limited groundwater supply. And they will be for years to come. This farm hasn’t had to go through any kind of planning and zoning process,” said he declared.

Arizona does not have groundwater regulations for agriculture in rural areas that cover about 80% of the state.

“You can come in and you can drill as many wells as you want. Pump as many as you want. You don’t have to tell anyone.”

And the secret is revealed.

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

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

As of May 2021, another 85 have been 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 in the range of 3,000 gallons per minute, 3,500 gallons per minute,” he said. .

There’s no way to tell how much water is actually used because large agricultural wells don’t have to measure it or report usage, but informed estimates from Mohave County put usage at 34,734 acres. -feet in 2021. County officials believe that number is with only 10% of farms’ available land being cultivated.

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

Efforts to monitor the amount actually used by large farms are going nowhere.

“We haven’t been able to get an audience in the legislature for the past few years. Not even a debate, no discussion, nothing,” Lingenfelter said.

It’s not for lack of trying.

Over the years, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature have introduced bills to address the problem. Some, repeatedly.

For four straight years, Rep. Regina Cobb of Kingman said she had dropped a bill that would allow county supervisors to set up rural management zones for at-risk groundwater ponds in their county. region. She said a committee of local residents, farmers and government officials would devise a plan to recharge the aquifer and bring it back to sustainable levels.

“It could create injection wells in the region. Conservation and recharge should be part of that,” she said. “There could be less development in that area, whatever it is for that aquifer. That’s the basin at risk. They can decide that. Then they have to return it to the state.”

Cobb said a study committee made up of farmers, ranchers, conservationists and government officials came up with the recommendations for inclusion in HB2662 this session. But he still hasn’t been heard.

In fact, none of Cobb’s bills ever made it to the House Natural Resources, Energy, and Water Committee.

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

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

“Attempts to regulate groundwater must strike an appropriate balance between the unique needs of local communities, including all agricultural users in those communities, and oversight by relevant government entities. The concepts proposed in this legislation fail to this balance.

Mohave County officials have also twice asked the Arizona Department of Resources to declare an irrigation no-expansion zone (INA) that would prevent the drilling of additional large wells. It was refused twice.

“The INA is very restrictive. And it only lets you look at the moment in time. It doesn’t let you have perspective,” Cobb said. Basically, since there is still useful water in the basin, the state cannot prevent the creation of new wells.

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

“Doing nothing is not an option. We have to do something, and I think now is the time. It was the time probably 10 years ago,” Cobb said.

But nothing is exactly what happened in the past and that is exactly what Lingenfelter is afraid of.

“We don’t have access to water from the Colorado River, we don’t have access to the canal system. That’s all. We depend on it. It’s the lifeblood for us, and there’s no no plan B,” he said.

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