Why Is Arizona’s Willcox Basin Facing Water Shortages?
The Willcox basin in Arizona can be found in the south-east corner of the state, covering an area of around 5,200 sq km. Those in the region source their water from wells, but analysis by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) shows that there are now over 100 dried-up wells, with many being deepened in order to access the water further down.
According to the Guardian, there are various reasons as to why the local aquifer is sinking – and one of them is the 2015 expansion of a local dairy just outside Sunizona by Minnesota-based Riverview. Since the expansion, almost 80 new wells have been drilled, the majority of them at least 300m deep. Three are almost 800m deep.
Other organisations in the region have also filed notices of intent to drill new wells or modify existing ones. Between January 2015 and November 2020, applications rose to 898, up from the 494 seen in the preceding five years.
Kristine Uhlman, a retired hydrologist from the University of Arizona, described the Willcox basin as “the wild west – no rules, free water”, adding: “You got the money to drill the wells, you got the water. You don’t have to plan or report to anyone except your investors.”
The Arizona Groundwater Management Act, established 41 years ago, controls groundwater pumping in population centres in the state such as Phoenix and Tucson, but rural areas are exempt from this law.
The aquifer in the Willcox basin is unlike the majority of other basins in the south-west and is salty to only 30m deep, with fresh water to be found below that. Ms Uhlman explained that there may be groundwater a kilometre below ground in some parts of the basin, which is why the region has become such a popular draw for farmers in the last ten years.
The recent ADWR study suggested that the long-term water outlook for the region doesn’t look promising and if pumping levels carry on as they are, water levels will drop by up to 280m in the Kansas Settlement by 2115, compared to the levels in the 1940s. Another potential problem is that a lot of the water left in the aquifer is so deep that it may be difficult to retrieve it.
In a recent interview with Arizona Public Media, hydrologist Laurel Lacher explained that it can help to think of the closed basin as a big bowl of underground water, with the hundreds of wells in the region acting like straws.
While some believe that the Willcox basin is sustainable, Mr Lacher disagrees, describing its groundwater depletion as “extreme already”. And Rodd Keeling, a local vineyard owner and someone active in state water policy, noted that around five times as much water is being pumped out as is being recharged naturally back into the system.
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