Mega-Dairies, Disappearing Wells, and Arizona’s Deepening Water Crisis
The Sunizona community, in the south-western US state of Arizona, is just a speck 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 foot of the Chiricahua mountains near the New Mexico border.
Cynthia Beltran moved to Sunizona with her seven-year-old son last autumn even though the area lacks functional drinking water wells, because it was all she could afford. She cannot afford the $15,000 (£10,000) cost of deepening her well, which dried up last year, and had been paying for a local firm to deliver water in a tanker. But at $100 a week it became too expensive, so now she will be relying on a friend to help her fetch water from her mother’s well.
“I have no place to go. I don’t have a job. I can’t afford to pay rent,” she says.
Beltran’s water woes are far from unique in the Willcox basin, an area of close to 2,000 sq miles (5,200 sq km) in Arizona’s south-east corner. Nearly 20 wells in Sunizona alone were deepened between 2015 and 2019, after they dried up. Seventy-five wells were deepened in that time across the Willcox basin, Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) records show.
Estimates put the number of dried-up wells at more than 100. A number of houses in Sunizona have been abandoned by owners 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 how much water you can extract.
While pinning a well’s decline on one source is virtually impossible, the sinking of the area’s aquifer accelerated after the Minnesota-based Riverview LLP bought and expanded a dairy 10 miles north of Sunizona in January 2015. Riverview has now drilled nearly 80 new wells, most at least 300 metres (1,000ft) deep, and three close to 800 metres deep.
It is not the only new well-driller encroaching on the basin. The notices of intent filed with the state to drill new or modify existing wells in the basin increased to 898 from 1 January 2015 to mid-November 2020, compared with 494 in the previous five years. But Riverview has drilled more new wells, and deepened existing ones, by far than any other organisation in the basin.
Kevin Wulf, a Riverview spokesman, does not dispute that the dairy is one factor in the decline of Arizona’s wells, but says it is hardly the only one.
“I get it – we’re the big target,” Wulf said on a tour of the dairy last year. “The rumour is, ‘you’re here to suck the valley dry and then you’re going to leave.’ We don’t want to do that.”
What is not disputed is that Riverview has transformed the look and economics of the Willcox basin in just a few years. The company has become the basin’s biggest operator, after buying out about 20 farmers, making it central to the region’s economy.
Riverview arrived in the Willcox basin when it paid a local owner $38m (£27.5m) 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 about $180m (£127m), Cochise county land records show. Much of that was farmland the dairy company bought to grow feed for its cattle.
Coronado dairy is now home to 70,000 Jersey-cross heifers (young cows that have not lactated yet), bred to be shipped to other Riverview facilities in the midwest. To drive down Kansas Settlement road is to witness an entire mile of livestock ticking by like a flipbook: honey-brown ears, big doe-eyes, flicking tails. In a barn set back from the road, another 7,000 dairy cows are milked twice daily on the 90-cow carousel.
In addition, about 2,500 dairy cows are milked at the Turkey Creek dairy. About 14,000 white rectangular “calf hutches” are lined up in straight rows, containing calves ranging from two to 90 days old. When full, Turkey Creek will house 9,000 dairy cows and 120,000 heifers.
Riverview’s critics say the Minnesota corporation was attracted here by the same freewheeling political climate that has drawn many pistachio and pecan farmers to the valley from California and other states. In Arizona, no regulations exist as to how much water farmers can pump in rural areas such as this.
Population centres elsewhere in the state, including Phoenix and Tucson, have their 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 University of Arizona hydrologist. “You got the money to drill the wells, you got the water. You don’t have to plan or report to anyone except your investors.”
Wulf says Arizona’s lack of regulations had nothing to do with the company’s decision to move to the Willcox area, saying the main factor was this region’s mild climate and long growing season.
Surrounded by five mountain ranges, the Willcox basin’s aquifer amounts to a bountiful savings account. Before large-scale agricultural pumping began in about 1940, there was enough to serve Tucson, the nearest big city, for up to 970 years, an ADWR report shows.
Unlike most groundwater basins in the south-west, the Willcox basin’s aquifer is salty only to 30 metres deep, and is largely fresh below that. In some areas of the basin, there may be groundwater a kilometre below ground, Uhlman says, making it a big draw for Riverview and other water-hungry farmers who have descended on the valley in the past decade.
But, Uhlman says, the pumping of a savings account must be managed. Between 1940 and 2015, groundwater levels declined by 60 to 90 metres from pre-development levels in some of the main pumping areas, according to an ADWR groundwater modelling study. A retired ADWR official says the rate of decline increased from 0.6 to 1.2 metres a year before 2015 to 0.9-1.5 metres a 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 that water used to grow feed crops has dropped by a quarter from that of its predecessor farmers, largely because of more efficient irrigation methods, but Wulf declines to disclose Riverview’s water use.
“Our total water use is something we watch internally very carefully,” he says. But the company favours state legislation requiring metering of all rural wells. This proposition has stalled in recent years, because of resistance from other farmers.
“We feel like there needs to be some regulations. Not to the point of California, because it gets so prohibitive there, but there has to be something. We just don’t know what it is,” says Wulf.
Riverview’s assertion of a drop in water use draws plenty of scepticism. Two veteran local farmers, Joe Salvail and John Hart, say that while many farms sold to Riverview grew one crop a year, the company has switched to summer and winter crops on some land, increasing total 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 is not the only grower adding crop cycles; other farmers are following suit, because of declining crop prices and the increasingly popular practice of planting winter-cover crops to enhance soil health and prevent erosion.
In 2015, a group of farmers, ranchers, residents and government officials proposed the installation of meters on wells and a review of most new ones. But the plan created deep divisions in the community and the state legislature ignored it. Nothing has happened since.
“The guys leading that effort in 2015 got so beat up among their peers, nobody wants to talk about it any more. If anything is going to happen on the water issue, it has to come from the state,” says Hart.
Wulf agrees. “We support regulation at the state level that’s fact-based,” he says. “We’ve seen local water issues become really emotional. And it tears communities apart when you start making it about so-and-so’s grandma or so-and-so’s well.”
In the meantime, the area’s long-term water outlook is gloomy. If pumping levels continue at the current rate, water levels will fall by up to 280 metres (920ft) in the Kansas Settlement by 2115 compared with 1940 levels, according to ADWR’s study. Much of the water that remains in the aquifer will be so deep it may not be practical to bring it to the surface, the study says.
But big farmers such as Riverview will be able to get water for a long time because they have the money to go deeper, Uhlman says. Homeowners and smaller farmers with shallower pockets are not so lucky.
“The fact that they are taking water from the bottom, it’s like taking water with straws from a bucket,” says Uhlman. “If you’re going to the bottom, you will have water till it’s empty. The people who have shorter straws are lost.”
Tony Davis is an environmental reporter at the Arizona Daily Star.
Co-published with The Guardian.