Farmers push back against tracking data on groundwater wells in Arizona


PHOENIX (AP) — The agriculture industry is pushing back against efforts in the Arizona Legislature to track the amount of water being drawn from large groundwater wells in rural areas around the state.

State water officials say getting the data would help Arizona better plan for future water use. But the agriculture industry sees bills to install measuring devices and submit annual reports, for example, as moves toward regulation.

Groundwater accounts for about 40% of Arizona’s total water use, but the state doesn’t require wells to be metered outside what are known as active management areas, said Carol Ward, the deputy assistant director for water planning at the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Without data from wells themselves, the agency relies on U.S. Geological Survey estimates of water use that are based on croplands surveys.

“This block represents an option for a very substantial chunk of additional data,” Ward said. “This is the largest opportunity. This is the gaping hole in the state.”

The disagreements over tracking groundwater emerged during a recent meeting of a state-appointed committee that focuses on groundwater in rural areas, the Arizona Republic reported.

Some committee members expressed concern that the data could be publicly disclosed and used against well owners in court cases over water, or that it might be used to start charging fees.

Stefanie Smallhouse, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, said “it’s pretty clear here that the bull’s eye is on agriculture’s back, and mining.

“Is the point to collect the information to regulate agriculture and stymie economic growth in Arizona?” she asked.

Ward said the data would help the state better plan for water use and make more informed decisions. She said the state water agency could be aided by data for community water systems and for large wells, including industrial and agricultural wells.

Water from the Colorado River supplies the state’s most populated areas, including Phoenix and Tucson. Other parts of Arizona rely largely on groundwater.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has proposed regulating wells in the past.

Among the dozen bills aimed at tracking groundwater use in rural areas:

—Requiring meters on large wells statewide. Wells that pump less than 35 gallons a minute would be exempt.

—Giving the state’s top water official the authority to require measuring devices on wells and to report annual water use.

—Requiring developers of subdivisions to ensure they have a 100-year supply of water before starting construction. That requirement exists now in active management areas centered around metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson, and Prescott. Cochise and Yuma counties have opted into that rule.

—Preventing the sale of subdivided land outside an active management area unless it has a 100-year, adequate water supply.

—Allowing county supervisors to create “rural management area” and an advisory council to set water goals.

—Temporarily banning new wells near the San Pedro and Verde rivers.