TThe community of Sunizona, in the southwestern US state of Arizona, is just a dot on the map. A few hundred homes dot the landscape along dirt roads and for a few miles along a state highway that leads to the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border.
Cynthia Beltran moved to Sunizona with her seven-year-old son last fall despite the fact that the area lacks functional drinking water wells, because it was all she could afford. He is unable to pay the $ 15,000 (£ 10,000) for the deepening of his well, which dried up last year, and had been paying a local company to deliver water in a tanker. But at $ 100 a week it became too expensive, so now she will depend on a friend to help her fetch water from her mother’s well.
“I have nowhere to go. I have no job. I can’t afford to pay the rent, ”he says.
Beltran’s water problems are far from unique to the Willcox Basin, an area of about 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Nearly 20 wells in Sunizona alone were deepened between 2015 and 2019, after they dried up. Seventy-five wells were drilled in that time in the Willcox basin, records from the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) show.
Estimates put the number of dry wells at more than 100. Several houses in Sunizona have been abandoned by homeowners who could not afford to deepen existing wells or dig new ones. But if you have the money to drill deep, there is no limit to the amount of water you can extract.
While it is virtually impossible to pin down the decline of a well in a source, the sinking of the area’s aquifer accelerated after Minnesota-based Riverview LLP purchased and expanded a dairy 10 miles north of Sunizona in January 2015. Riverview has now drilled nearly 80 new wells, most at least 1,000 feet (300 meters) deep, and three nearly 800 meters deep.
It is not the only new driller to invade the basin. Notices of intent submitted to the state to drill new wells or modify existing ones in the basin increased to 898 from January 1, 2015 to mid-November 2020, compared to 494 in the previous five years. But Riverview has drilled more new wells and deepened existing ones, far more than any other organization in the basin.
Kevin Wulf, a Riverview spokesman, does not dispute that dairy is a factor in the decline of Arizona’s wells, but says it is not the only one.
“I get it, we are the big target,” Wulf said on a dairy tour last year. “The rumor is, ‘You’re here to dry up the valley and then you’re going to go.’ We don’t want to do that. “
What’s not in dispute is that Riverview has transformed the look and economy of the Willcox Basin in just a few short years. The company has become the largest operator in the basin, after buying the participation of some 20 farmers, which makes it a central element of the region’s economy.
Riverview came to the Willcox basin when it paid a local owner $ 38 million (£ 27.5 million) for the Coronado dairy and 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres) in the Kansas settlement north of Sunizona. Since then, the company has bought more than 20,415 hectares for around $ 180 million (£ 127 million), Cochise County land records show. Much of that was farmland that the dairy company bought to grow food for its livestock.
The Coronado Dairy is now home to 70,000 Jersey cross heifers (young cows that have not yet suckled), raised to be shipped to other Riverview facilities in the Midwest. To drive down Kansas Settlement Road is to witness an entire mile of cattle running like a flip book: honey-colored ears, big deer eyes, wagging tails. In a barn set back from the road, another 7,000 dairy cows are milked twice a day on the 90-cow carousel.
In addition, about 2,500 dairy cows are milked at Turkey Creek dairy. Approximately 14,000 white rectangular “calf houses” are lined up in straight rows, containing calves from two to 90 days old. When full, Turkey Creek will house 9,000 dairy cows and 120,000 heifers.
Critics of Riverview say the Minnesota corporation was drawn here by the same carefree political climate that has drawn many pistachio and nut farmers to the valley from California and other states. In Arizona, there are no regulations on how much water farmers can pump in rural areas like this one.
Population centers in other parts of the state, including Phoenix and Tucson, have groundwater pumping controlled by the Arizona Groundwater Management Act, now 41 years old. But that law exempted rural areas.
“The Willcox Basin is the Wild West, no rules, free water,” says Kristine Uhlman, a retired hydrologist at the University of Arizona. “You have the money to drill the wells, you have the water. You don’t have to plan or report to anyone except your investors. “
Wulf says the lack of Arizona regulations had nothing to do with the company’s decision to move to the Willcox area, saying the main factor was the region’s mild climate and long growing season.
Surrounded by five mountain ranges, the Willcox Basin Aquifer equates to a rich savings account. Before large-scale agricultural pumping began around 1940, there was enough to serve Tucson, the nearest large city, for up to 970 years. an ADWR report show.
Unlike most groundwater basins in the Southwest, the Willcox Basin aquifer is salty only up to 30 meters deep, and is largely cool below that. In some areas of the watershed, there may be groundwater a kilometer underground, Uhlman says, making it a huge draw to Riverview and other water-hungry farmers who have descended into the valley in the last decade.
But, says Uhlman, the pumping of a savings account must be managed. Between 1940 and 2015, groundwater levels decreased 60 to 90 meters from pre-development levels in some of the major pumping areas, according to an ADWR groundwater modeling study. A retired ADWR official says the rate of decline increased from 0.6 to 1.2 meters per year before 2015 to 0.9-1.5 meters per year between 2015 and 2017.
Riverview drilled about 21% of the 315 new wells in the basin between January 2015 and October 2019. It says the water used to grow feed has been reduced by a quarter from that of its predecessor farmers, largely due to more efficient irrigation methods, but Wulf refuses to disclose Riverview’s water use.
“Our total water use is something we look at internally very carefully,” he says. But the company favors state legislation that requires the measurement of all rural wells. This proposal has stalled in recent years due to resistance from other farmers.
“We feel that there must be some regulations. Not to the point of California, because there it gets prohibitive, but there has to be something. We just don’t know what it is, ”says Wulf.
Riverview’s claim of a drop in water use generates a lot of skepticism. Two veteran local farmers, Joe Salvail and John Hart, say that while many farms sold to Riverview produced one crop a year, the company has switched to summer and winter crops on some lands, increasing overall water use.
“They’ll put in a wheat crop and follow it with corn,” says Hart, who has owned 500 hectares of farmland in the area since 2005. But Hart says Riverview isn’t the only grower adding crop cycles; other farmers are following suit, due to falling crop prices and the increasingly popular practice of planting winter cover crops to improve soil health and prevent erosion.
In 2015, a group of farmers, ranchers, residents and government officials proposed the installation of meters in the wells and the revision of most of the new ones. But the plan created deep divisions in the community and the state legislature ignored it. Since then nothing has happened.
“The guys who led that effort in 2015 were so beaten up among their peers that no one wants to talk about it anymore. If something is going to happen on the water issue, it has to come from the state, ”says Hart.
Wulf agrees. “We support state-level regulation that is based on facts,” he says. “We have seen local water problems get really emotional. And it tears communities apart when you start talking about the so-and-so or so-and-so grandmother. “
Meanwhile, the long-term water outlook for the area is bleak. If pumping levels continue at the current rate, water levels will drop as much as 280 meters (920 feet) in the Kansas settlement by 2115 compared to 1940 levels, according to ADWR Study. Much of the water left in the aquifer will be so deep that it may not be practical to bring it to the surface, according to the study.
But big farmers like Riverview will be able to get water for a long time because they have the money to go deep, says Uhlman. Homeowners and small farmers with shallow pockets are not so lucky.
“The fact that they are drinking water from the bottom is like drawing water with straws from a bucket,” says Uhlman. “If you go to the bottom, you will have water until it is empty. People who have shorter straws are at a loss. “
Subscribe to the Animals farm monthly update for a roundup of the best agriculture and food stories from around the world and keep up to date with our research. You can send us your stories and thoughts at [email protected]
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism