Groundwater is one of the main water resources for most of Arizona. It is finite and mostly unregulated, especially in rural communities that solely depend on it.
To change this, in 2022, the basins around Douglas and Kingman became regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).
Douglas and its surrounding groundwater basin became an Active Management Area (AMA) through a local ballot initiative in the 2022 election. Basins can be designated as AMAs when groundwater is the largest supplier of water to a given area and given specific hydrologic characteristics.
It is the first basin designated as an AMA since the Arizona Groundwater Management Act in 1980, which designated five basins as AMAs. Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal County, Tucson, and Nogales are still within AMAs.
About 80% of the state’s population lives within those original five AMAs.
Within AMAs there are laws that limit development, mandate conservation, and require annual reporting from water systems. These laws serve goals that range from attaining a balance between withdrawals and recharges of aquifers.
Each AMA has different, specific goals based on its specific situation, and Natalie Mast, Arizona Department of Water Resources’ AMA director, said there is no statutory goal determined for the new one in Douglas at this time.
AMAs include the 100-year assured water supply requirement, which says that every development that is building six or more units must demonstrate a 100-year assured water supply before approval. It also requires large water suppliers like cities, private companies and irrigation districts to provide an annual report that does not exceed 10% net loss of groundwater supply.
But being designated as an AMA is not a perfect or uniform solution for water conservation and management for all rural Arizona communities, Mast said.
“Rural issues are complex, and different solutions are going to impact different areas differently,” she said.
Residents of Willcox, a city in the same county as Douglas, voted against their basin being designated as an AMA on the same ballot.
The Hualapai Valley basin, an area that spans from just north of Kingman up toward the Arizona-Nevada border, was designated as an Irrigation Non-expansion Area (INA).
INAs are designed to restrict new withdrawals while requiring annual water withdrawal reports from existing water users who live in the basin. Mast said INAs are designated to restrict the expansion of previously existing irrigation areas and limit further withdrawals.
It is the first basin to be designated as an INA since the Harquahala INA, an area west of Tonopah, in 1982.
The Douglas basin, as well as the Joseph City basin, were designated as INAs in 1980 in the Arizona Groundwater Management Act. Groundwater management is hardly new to residents of Douglas.
“You can imagine being a farmer in Douglas and thinking I really don’t want a lot of growth. We don’t need more people moving down here and using up our water and disrupting the land,” Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said. “The AMA is a tool for limiting growth or for changing the pattern of growth.”
Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter said the lack of regulation in most of rural Arizona has allowed firms from outside of the state to use as much groundwater as they want. In Kingman, Lingenfelter said these companies “pump as much free water, which is a finite resource, as you want.”
The Hualapai Valley basin is the main water supplier for Kingman, according to Lingenfelter.
“We don’t have really a plan B,” Lingenfelter said. “We don’t have Colorado River water; we don’t have a canal system. So, it’s important for us to make sure that our only water supply continues to be sustainable.”
Lingenfelter said the way that most of rural Arizona is mostly unregulated is not sustainable and could become a “public health crisis” if it is left like it is today.
Juliet McKenna, principal hydrogeologist at Montgomery & Associates, calls the lack of regulation of groundwater in Arizona “unsustainable.”
“The presence of groundwater there has created an opportunity for communities and industry to thrive, but the growth is based on a finite resource,” McKenna said. “And we call it fossil groundwater. This groundwater has gotten into these basins in over thousands of years and is not being replenished. So, in these areas that are not regulated, we have a situation where water is being mined and not being replaced.”
Mast said the main problem with groundwater in rural Arizona is the lack of measurement and monitoring of wells and aquifers.
“It’s hard to manage what you don’t measure,” Mast said. “Anything outside of the active management area through irrigation and expansion areas, we’re really relying on estimates… and that makes understanding the water issues in those areas exponentially more difficult, because you aren’t able to get a full picture of what’s really happening in that area.”
Establishing an INA may be easier soon, with the passing of a bill from Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, that establishes a process for registered voters and irrigation users to petition ADWR to establish a temporary INA in that basin.
The process under that bill, HB2442, would start with a petition gaining at least one half of irrigation users within the borders of a specific basin and at least 10% of registered voters in counties within a specific basin.
Once the petition is verified, ADWR would hold meetings in the area and the county board of supervisors would call for an election with all registered voters within the basin. If voters approve the measure, then the INA is established and ADWR would draw the official map and INA regulations would apply.
The House passed the bill 31-29 on Feb. 21. The votes fell on party lines, with Democrats opposed.
In 2022, SB1740 was signed into law and required ADWR to do a water supply and demand measurements for each of the groundwater basins in Arizona by Dec. 1, 2023. Mast said they are currently in the process of getting a team together to create a report of supply and demand for each of the 46 groundwater basins in Arizona. The study will take place every five years.
Porter of ASU said groundwater situations are different for each part of the state, and not every rural area utilizes solely groundwater. She said Flagstaff gets some of its water from surface water in Lake Mary. Flagstaff is also surrounded by acres of federal land, and it is not a commonly farmed area.
Cities like Yuma that are near the main stem of the Colorado River are in less trouble because they can use federally regulated water from there and do not need to rely on groundwater as much, according to Porter.
According to Mast, ADWR also does not have jurisdiction over water rights and management in tribal nations.
Last month, Gov. Katie Hobbs formed the Governor’s Water Policy Council to “modernize the Arizona Groundwater Act,” according to a press release. The press release pointed to an example of a Saudi Arabian alfalfa farm “pumping water unchecked” in La Paz County. Porter calls this a “red herring.”
“They haven’t seen a change in the groundwater and the water table in that area is not declining,” Porter said. “I do think it’s important to think about how even in rural areas, not everyone is equally vulnerable to this happening.”
Porter said the Colorado River is a more pressing issue for the state, but it is not a problem that Arizona’s state government can solve. She said the Legislature does have the responsibility to solve the groundwater problem in rural Arizona.
“I’m not a political expert, and I can’t predict, but I think it’s important to focus on the fact that the Legislature does have both the power and the responsibility to address rural groundwater issues,” Porter said.