Willcox Groundwater Basin AMA petition signatures certified for November ballot

Contributed File Photo: Arizona Water Defenders Chair Ashley Dahlke and Treasurer Rebekah Wilce prepare to turn in a petition with more than the required amount of signatures to put an Active Management Area for the Willcox Groundwater Basin on the November ballot. The AWD was recently informed that more than the necessary amount of signatures have been confirmed and the measure will be on the ballot this November.

Contributed Article/Courtesy Arizona Water Defenders

BISBEE – The Arizona Water Defenders (AWD) has received confirmation from the Cochise County Elections Department that its petition to place a Willcox Basin Active Management Area (AMA) on the Nov. 8 ballot has more than sufficient signatures to proceed. The Elections Department presented this information to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors at its work session on May 13.

Voters residing within the Willcox Basin in both Cochise and Graham Counties – so many of whom signed the petition and shared their concerns – will have the opportunity to vote on whether to create an AMA to manage groundwater in the basin after the Cochise County Board of Supervisors calls the election, which is expected to happen at its meeting on Aug. 30.

“So many voters signed the petition to put the Willcox Basin AMA to a vote that we are not surprised that the measure will be on the November ballot,” said AWD Chair Ash Dahlke. “We’re grateful to everyone in the County Elections Department and the Recorder’s Office for their careful and efficient work to certify the signatures.”

AWD is also actively collecting signatures to place an AMA on the ballot for the Douglas Basin, where water levels are dropping fast and subsidence and fissures are also concentrated. The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) website now includes information pages for the proposed AMAs in both the Willcox Basin and the Douglas Basin. 

Once the election is called, “an irrigation user may irrigate within the proposed active management area only acres of land which were legally irrigated at any time during the five years preceding the date of the notice of the initiation of designation procedures or the call for the election,” according to A.R.S. § 45-416. The Willcox Basin freeze will continue in effect until the final results of the election are certified by the Cochise County and Graham County Boards of Supervisors.

This is the first time that residents of a groundwater basin have initiated the process of gaining groundwater protection through a citizens’ initiative, as allowed by the 1980 Groundwater Management Act (A.R.S. § 45-415). Until now, no other Arizona residents have successfully taken advantage of this legal opportunity.

Arizona has five AMAs in other parts of the state – including 80 percent of the state’s population – but there are no safeguards in the Willcox Basin to prevent overpumping of groundwater by the high-capacity pumps typically used by large industrial agricultural operations. More than 90 percent of groundwater extracted from the basin is for agricultural use, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).

Overpumping in the Willcox Basin is causing land subsidence at the highest rate in the state, according to ADWR, leading to earth fissures opening across roadways. State, national, and international media have all reported on the dramatic drop in the basin’s water levels and the hardships caused in the community, but ADWR has repeatedly declined to use the Groundwater Management Act to create new AMAs either in the Willcox Basin or elsewhere, as ARS § 45-412 allows them to do.

Registered voters residing within the Douglas Basin can email arizonawaterdefenders@gmail.com to find one of the many places and times where trained volunteer circulators have petitions available. 

About the Arizona Water Defenders: The Arizona Water Defenders (arizonawaterdefenders.com) is a grassroots community group composed of residents of the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins that works to preserve groundwater for current and future residents. It is organized as a political action committee in order to circulate ballot measure petitions to create Active Management Areas in the Willcox and Douglas Groundwater Basins. AWD is committed to continued engagement in order to maintain and rebuild our community’s ability to survive and thrive with a healthy groundwater reserve.