Opposition to a Cochise County water measure flows in mostly from out-of-area sources

A water well storage tank near crops in Cochise County.
A water well storage tank near crops in Cochise County.

As residents in southeast Arizona prepare to vote on a plan to regulate groundwater for the first time, out-of-state interests have been pouring in cash to the group that is opposing the measure.

Vintners from San Diego and Southern California have donated thousands of dollars to Rural Water Assurance, a group made up of Cochise residents, farmers and vintners who oppose state regulations on groundwater. Farms and investment groups in Maricopa and Pima Counties have also added large donations backing the opposition, including more than $18,000 from a marketing agency based in Tucson.

The ballot measure would create an Active Management Area, which would halt new acres of irrigation in the Willcox and Douglas Basins and require anyone or any operation pumping more than 35 gallons per minute to report water use to the state. Those with already irrigated acres would be grandfathered into the deal.

Rural Water Assurance opposes the AMA, arguing that it would take control out of residents' hands and give power to the governor and the governor's appointees.

Despite RWA’s interest in local control, more than half of its campaign contributions have come from outside the basin, including more than $36,000 from donors in California, and Maricopa and Pima Counties since July, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

Anastasia Rabin talks about the need for the creation of an AMA in Cochise County.
Anastasia Rabin talks about the need for the creation of an AMA in Cochise County.

According to the campaign finance report, the group has received a total $65,850 in contributions.

Ballot measure: Cochise voters could force new groundwater protections

Most of the in-basin donations have been made within the last month. During the first three weeks of October, the largest RWA donors included White Water Irrigation and Western Hydro Engineering, both based in Cochise County, with each giving $10,000. Willcox-based Pride Drilling gave $9,400 and High Desert Irrigation, also in Willcox, gave $5,000.

The Arizona Water Defenders collected signatures in the basins to get the AMA on the ballot for the general election. The group believes an AMA is the best way to protect groundwater in the basins.

A sign in favor of Proposition 420 in Cochise County.
A sign in favor of Proposition 420 in Cochise County.

“It's hardly surprising that local companies profiting off groundwater extraction would oppose active management to conserve the groundwater, but some of the other donors are surprising given RWA's emphasis on what it calls local control,” AWD said in a statement.

Among the out-of-state donors is Tri-Nut Farm Management out of California, currently irrigating 2,400 acres in the Willcox and Douglas Basin, with plans to expand to an additional 1,200 acres.

Other interests backing the RWA with donations are Kai Land Company out of Tucson and 3 Rivers Investments out of Chandler.

The RWA has received more than 90% of its funds through contributions over $2,000 and received more than half through donations over $5,000. RWA has not responded to The Republic's request for comment.

Large-scale nut growers from California have been purchasing land in the two groundwater basins in recent years and digging new wells. Since groundwater is not regulated there, these large-scale operations can pump as much water as they want without reporting it to the state.

Many believe that agricultural expansion from out-of-state farms has affected water supply here and sped up groundwater depletion that has caused residential wells to dry up.

Outside of Active Management Areas, agri-businesses can pump out as much groundwater as they want for as long as they can, says Cheryl Knot of the Water Defenders. "They move here to extract our groundwater and turn it into milk, cattle, and tree nuts that they send out of state."

The Water Defenders have had difficulty bringing in big donations. They have received about $16,000 during the campaign season, most of those funds come exclusively from small donations from individuals in Bisbee.

Only two contributions have exceeded $1,000, both of which came from volunteers of the group.

If the AMA is passed by voters, the Arizona Department of Water Resources would decide whether to set a goal of “safe yield” for the area as it has for the other five regions of the state. This would ultimately require that the total amount of pumping in each basin not exceed the amount of rainwater and other water sources replenishing the aquifer.

Currently in the Willcox Basin, pumping exceeds the natural replenishment of the aquifer by four times, a 2018 study done by the state water agency concluded.

There's currently a freeze on new irrigation until the votes are tabulated. If voters reject the AMA ,irrigation and expansion will continue unregulated.

At a critical juncture for campaigning in the election cycle, the opposition to the AMA had $46,000 left in its coffers as of Oct. 22. The water defenders had only $2,760 left to spend as of the same date.

Jake Frederico covers environment issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to jake.frederico@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Out-of-town donations fund opposition to Cochise County water measure