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Arizona's groundwater supplies are essentially unregulated. That means rural wells are drying up

By Ron Dungan
Published: Monday, July 24, 2023 - 7:19am
Updated: Monday, July 24, 2023 - 7:20am

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Cactus in the foreground with a windmill in the background.
Ron Dungan/KJZZ
Most of Arizona's rural groundwater is unregulated.

While temperatures push well above 100 degrees, it’s easy to forget that Arizona’s deserts lie on top of groundwater basins that formed during the Ice Age.

The state’s rural communities rely on that water, which experts say is a finite resource. But in most cases, it’s not regulated in any meaningful way. That lack of regulation has begun to show, as wells dry up and local residents call for action.

But the same political roadblocks that have long existed at the state Capitol are still in place.

More than four decades ago, Arizona attempted to pass a statewide groundwater law. Resistance from rural stakeholders forced the state to settle for a law that focused only on urban areas. Policymakers assumed that a law for rural communities would come later. It never did.

“Eighty percent of the state’s land area is essentially unprotected, unmanaged when it comes to its groundwater supplies,” said Haley Paul, of Audubon Southwest.

Out-of-state agriculture companies have noticed the lack of regulation, and they’ve come to set up shop in Arizona. Water tables have begun to fall.

“So it really is the deepest well wins,” Paul said.

A Saudi-financed company that grows alfalfa with La Paz County groundwater and ships it overseas has made headlines, but cattle growers from Minnesota and nut farmers from California have also come to drop deep wells in the desert. They’re backed by hedge funds or corporations.

“It’s a shame, because in the meantime people’s wells are going dry and people are feeling like they have no option,” Paul said.

Arizona Capitol
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
The Arizona Capitol in Phoenix.

Arizona has a reputation as a business-friendly state, with a Republican Legislature that tries to keep it that way. Some GOP lawmakers have begun to question the lack of action on groundwater, but they haven’t been able to do anything about it.

Kathleen Ferris, of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, helped write the Groundwater Law of 1980. She said that when corporate farmers in other states run out of groundwater, they come to the Arizona desert.

“They come, and they come to these areas to grow crops because they can. Very simply, the law allows them to do it,” Ferris said.

Lawmakers have proposed several bills in recent years, but they die in committee.

“Rarely, rarely do they get a hearing, even get a hearing. So, you can’t move a bill forward in the Legislature, unless the committee that has been assigned the bill holds a hearing and votes the bill out of committee,” she said.

Groundwater bills get assigned to the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committees, where they die.

“The chairs of these legislative committees have a great deal of power. And they really have the power to decide the ultimate fate of a bill,” Ferris said.

Arizona state Rep. Gail Griffin and Sen. Sine Kerr.
Arizona Legislature
Arizona state Rep. Gail Griffin and Sen. Sine Kerr chair their respective Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committees.

The House committee is chaired by Republican Gail Griffin, a real-estate broker at Sierra Vista Realty. The Senate committee is chaired by Republican Sine Kerr, a dairy farmer from Buckeye. Both declined requests for interviews.

Ferris said that although Republicans in areas hit hard by corporate agriculture want change, groundwater is far from a bipartisan issue. La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin said that people in her region are getting frustrated.

“We can’t even get hearings on bills. That’s the problem,” Irwin said.

In some cases, the state can’t even take measurements on groundwater, which means our understanding of the water table is incomplete.

“We need to find out, number one, what’s underneath the ground, and number two, we need to do something to protect what we do have,” she said.

Irwin said she understands why people might resist regulation.

“I totally understand their perspective, but my whole thing is, OK, then let’s all get to the table. What will work to where we can start protecting what we have, before it’s too late,” she said.

Getty Images
An irrigation canal and siphon tubes water an alfalfa field in Arizona.

She said for La Paz County residents, the biggest frustration is watching water get shipped off to other places – to Saudi Arabia, for example. Or piped to Queen Creek, which happened recently when a corporate farm in the county sold its share of Colorado River water.

“To be honest with you, you can’t keep kicking this can down the road, you know, they’re going to have to do something. La Paz County shouldn’t be the sacrificial lamb for everybody else,” Irwin said.

She’s optimistic that with a new administration, something might get done. Gov. Katie Hobbs has appointed a committee to study the problem, but any meaningful change will likely have to go through the Legislature.

In April, the Legislature appointed its own committee to study Arizona’s water supply. It’s co-chaired by Griffin and Kerr.

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