Cochise County is a chunk of Arizona where I have whiled away time. Hot springs, winemakers and bohemian high desert dwellers are all here. Then, there are the predators— every kind in every guise— coyote, puma and red tail hawks are here. Then there are the corporate dairy operators, they arrive with well drillers, these are the money is no object drill deeper well drilling dairy interests that have with heavy hands invaded this delicate region of Southern Arizona.
Certain water user types like to pretend that the regions high desert vineyards require the same volume of water a dairy operator needs. Growing grapes in Arizona’s high desert is in fact not water intensive, it is an ideal crop to water by the method of a miserly drip irrigation system. By contrast dairy operators require boundless amounts of water for their operations.
A region of Cochise County that is known as the Kentucky Settlements has been overrun by an out of state dairy conglomerate that landed here and began punching wells like there is no tomorrow— we’re talking over 600 wells. Nearby county small farmers act as a smokescreen, the idea is to throw the misinformed citizens off the scent, conflate an operator that uses almost no water to an operator that uses almost all the water.
Big dairy operations will run multiple wells day in and day out at 35 gallons per minute all day long, twenty-four hours a day, all year long. You turn on 600 irrigation well pumps and run them all day every day year in and year out and we are talking about the collapse of the regions underground water resources.
Cochise County seat is in Bisbee, Arizona. The town is located furtherest to the south along the Mexican frontier. Nearby Douglas is situated to the east in a valley below right on the border. If you are sick to death of sweltering in Tucson you come up into the mountains and visit Bisbee, some rent a place others buy a second home here.
While Douglas is predominately Mexican American it is Bisbee’s population that attracts misfits. Art and craft types that follow the festival circuit call Bisbee home. Talented baristas, bartenders, waitresses and tourist shop clerks scratch out their livelihoods here. Airbnb helps give folk here an extra way to make a buck. The types that come to Bisbee as a rule can’t cut it in Wilcox, it’s an emotional thing, and social, Wilcox is too straight, Bisbee is still running wild. The two types found most common here are the young and the offbeat older spirits still clinging to their youthful wild spirited ways.
The United States Army’s Intelligence school is west in nearby Sierra Vista and Huachuca City. The wild west’s Tombstone is here. Once you find Sunizona you are getting mighty close to where much of the misguided water grabbing is taking place. Further to the east are the Chiricahua’s, much is wilderness, most of the rest consists of small villages and settlements. Bird hunting in the Dragoons is popular. The region is a magnet for winter visitors coming here to explore during the cooler months of the year.
Cochise County’s population sits at about 125,000. That’s not much. Their brand of politics tends to run hot, plenty here fashion themselves independents, tend to be in sympathy with libertarians, and want to be left alone. That doesn’t describe citizens in Bisbee, they’re all those other kinds and flavors of people. It’s down here where citizens gathered signatures and qualified an initiative to regulate groundwater in the county. The active water management area was passed fair and square down along the border and didn’t pass north in nearby Wilcox.
There are at least two underground aquifers in this region. The aquifer to the south is now a protected active managed water area and is going to be regulate, groundwater and the citizens to the north voted down the initiative and there is every reason to worry about the aquifers complete collapse. Money poured in opposition to the initiative from across the United States and likely foreign interests illegally meddled in the election as well.
Cochise County was the sole holdout in Arizona’s November’s gubinatorial election and refused to certify the results until by court order they buckled under. Kari Lake sympathizers are cheek to jowl down here and probably not more than a few thousand tried stirring up trouble. Once threatened with jail election officials sobered up and performed their duties.
Let’s say you move down to Cochise County and purchase some acreage. You’ll put in a water well, build out a septic system, put up a place to call home and you are set to live a life rife with rattlesnakes, scorpions and disaffected Kari Lake sympathizers. Residential water well users tend to use smaller sized well pipes and less powerful pumps. Commercial operations punch deeper wells, they punch more wells and use most of the water. Citizens on fixed incomes find they have to have their wells punched deeper to keep up with the draw down, where a commercial operator sees a deeper well as a line item on an operating statement, the residential user sees having to spend $10 to $30 thousand dollars as a deal breaker. Once you lose your access to water on your 5 acres of desert paradise your land is now worthless, you’ll have to haul water in while you figure out where in the hell you can go next.
Across the American West all the state water resource agencies are only now beginning to put into law regulations that control the use of groundwater. Five areas in Arizona have any groundwater restrictions at all, most of the rest remains unregulated. Any hope of getting the groundwater protected fall to the county initiative process, chances are zero that the state legislature could pass regulations, special interests whip the vote to see that won’t happen.
California’s solution has a certain political elegance to its method. Pass the legislation necessary to get a grip on the overuse of groundwater but then set a multiple decade’s timetable to the rollout of the new rules. By 2040 every commercial well in California will have a meter, the amount of water that can be pumped will be set based upon how much water there is in the aquifer. If regulators find a given aquifer is being drawn down the regions pumps will be forced to use less or none at all. Best of all the politicians that passed the legislation a decade ago will be out of office and escape the wrath of big agriculture. Word has it if you pump long and hard enough chances are you’ll pump up the remains of one of those no good water regulating politicians that ended your free lunch decades back.
The seven western states that use Colorado River water are trying to voluntarily find four-million-acre feet of water that instead of being used will be voluntarily given back to the river. No state has been able to find more than a few hundred-thousand-acre feet of water that they can afford to give back. Regulators trying to compel a voluntary solution trying to avoid having to issue mandatory cutbacks.
The American West is short of the water needed to maintain business as usual. On one level there is the threat of having your allotment of river water cut. If you are a farm that means the jig is up, fold your tent and hand the keys to your farmhouse back to the bank. That’s what taking acreage out of production looks like, certainly not a happy ending. The more catastrophic scenarios hit home when an entire aquifer collapses and many thousands of farms and rural residential operations simply have no more water left in the ground to bring up and use to support their lives and livelihoods. When the northernmost section of Cochise County’s aquifer is pumped dry, some speculate it could happen anytime between now and 2070 the region will be rendered uninhabitable, and that’s not a problem politics can do anything about. Once we hit that marker, we’ve entered the lifeboat moment in the climate crisis.
Where I sit in Northern California today there is a major Pacific storm about to clobber us with drenching rain and heavy snow. Water resource managers have already said that while we need this rain, and it will be a lot of rain, it will not in and of itself be enough to end the 23 year long drought this region has suffered. More rain helps but water resources remain tight and that’s now the permanent circumstance we face as our world’s climate shifts.