Arizona dries up as long-term drought and megafarms deplete scarce water resources

Water levels in the Willcox Basin have been receding at an alarming rate, with some areas experiencing annual drops of up to 3 metres

Climate change and irrigation leave Arizonans high and dry

Climate change and irrigation leave Arizonans high and dry
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Deep within the Willcox Basin in south-eastern Arizona near the US-Mexico border, a long-term drought and a surge in agricultural irrigation has ignited a groundwater crisis that threatens the very essence of life in this tranquil and remote rural sanctuary.

As the Colorado River dries up, a considerable portion of the aquifers that have historically supplied almost 40 per cent of Arizona's vital water resources – and played an indispensable role in transforming its vast landscapes into some of the world's most fertile farmland – are now facing depletion that may require centuries or even millennia to recharge.

Water scarcity is a growing concern in drier parts of the world and this year's Cop28 in Dubai will have a day dedicated to discussing this issue.

The Willcox Basin is completely reliant on groundwater, yet no measures have been taken to curb its depletion.

For one resident who made the move from Phoenix in 1998, the shift has been striking.

“There was actually a lot less water being pumped out of the ground back in 1998, about half as much as there is right now. It's grown considerably, almost 90 per cent, since we bought here,” said Steve Kisiel, underscoring that most of the changes unfolded over the past two decades.

“There is no way to get that back.”

Mr Kisiel lives in a part of Arizona where about 1.5 million people rely primarily on groundwater.

“We've been in a long-term drought here in south-east Arizona. And with the drought we've had a lot less rainfall, a lot less recharge. So that's made the situation worse,” he explained.

He wants the state to regulate the use of groundwater.

Water levels have been receding at an alarming rate, with some areas experiencing annual drops of up to 3 metres, he explained. By draining aquifers, the basin risks losing access to that water in the future when they might need it even more.

Residents now grapple with the daunting choice of drilling deeper wells or relying on water imported from distant sources, Mr Kisiel explained. Both options come with substantial costs.

Mr Kisiel deepened his well to a depth of about 180 metres and extended it by another 60 metres at a cost of $15,000. Throughout this process, he discovered that the water level in his well had been steadily declining at an annual rate of 1.8 metres.

Vance Williams is among a growing number of residents who have seen their wells run dry in recent years. His water supply dried up when a massive dairy farm from Minnesota was established about 10km down the road.

An Iraq war veteran, Mr Williams found himself relying on 20-litre water containers purchased from the local grocery store for a year.

He, along with many others, is worried about going into debt trying to get running water. He is also concerned that the value of his property is declining and that he will not be able to pass it down to his daughter.

Mr Williams considered redrilling his well, but at almost $50,000, he could not afford it, especially as it will only need to be expanded over time as water levels drop.

“Its shocking … I used all my savings to purchase a house … you to plan to live there for the rest of your life and suddenly you find there's no water,” he said.

“Luckily, I own my house … unluckily, the water is gonna run out.”

Kristine Uhlman, a former hydrologist at the University of Arizona, believes the dairy farm installed at least 20 wells between 300 metres to 600 metres deep.

“And they're essentially taking this fresh water from the bottom, she said.

“So it's like if you have, you know, a soda and you put a straw and you drink the soda from the bottom of the cup – the water level is going to draw down, down, down, down until you hit the bottom.”

According to a report published by the Arizona Department of Water Reserves, before agricultural pumping began around 1940, Willcox had enough water to supply Tucson, the nearest major city, for up to 900 years.

In some of Arizona’s rural areas, there are currently no regulations governing the amount of water that megafarms can extract, effectively establishing a monopoly over the region's aquifers.

All of this happens beyond the purview of the state, which does not have the authority to track how much water each well is pumping.

Kathleen Ferris, a former state water official and one of the architects of Arizona’s landmark 1980 groundwater management law, told The National that anyone can drill a well and pump as much groundwater as they want.

“Corporate megafarms have moved into many rural groundwater basins over the last 10 years, cultivating vast amounts of land. They do it because they can,” she said.

It's the “Wild West”, Ms Uhlman added. “The situation is horrible. It could not be worse.”

She likened groundwater to a “savings account” for those who live in the desert – and if groundwater is Arizona’s savings account, corporate farms from around the world are making huge withdrawals that have been impossible to replenish.

During her tenure at the University of Arizona, she conducted groundwater sampling across various basins in Arizona, with the goal of determining the last time the water had come into contact with the atmosphere.

The results revealed that the average age of groundwater was about 10,000 years old, indicating that it had not been recharged since the time when mammoths roamed the landscape, explained Ms Uhlman.

“In 20 years, there might not be anybody left there [in Willcox Basin], except the deep corporate agricultural companies that are pumping all that beautiful fresh water without consideration for their neighbours.”

Updated: November 16, 2023, 4:02 PM