- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - An effort by large growers to limit new pumping in southeastern Arizona’s Bowie-San Simon area has been rejected by state water officials, who said that despite concerns pumping from planned new farms could deplete the aquifer, there’s no sign that is happening now.

The petition from five major growers calling for the Bowie-San Simon area to be closed to new irrigation was rejected last week by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. When that decision is finalized in about a month, a temporary freeze on new irrigation that went into effect in March will be lifted, the Arizona Daily Star reported (https://bit.ly/1WwpTon).

The order marked a big victory for landowners in the area who said big growers were trying to take over. The big growers argued that an influx of new farmers would threaten the aquifer’s stability.

Among the growers that sought the ban was Farmers Investment Co., a Sahuarita-based pecan grower that cultivates the same crop about 100 miles east of Tucson near San Simon. The decision affects the San Simon Valley Sub-Basin, covering about 1,930 square miles across parts of Graham and Cochise counties and a small section of southwest New Mexico.

The state agency found that the sub-basin had enough groundwater to support continued irrigation at the current rate for at least another century, supporting what opponents of the effort to limit new pumping had argued.

A larger issue exposed by the ruling are is the limit of Arizona’s pioneering Groundwater Management Act of 1980 in regulating irrigation away from population centers

State Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in his decision that the law requires petitioners to show “insufficient groundwater to provide a reasonably safe supply for irrigation of the cultivated lands in the area at the current rates of withdrawal.”

Buschatzke wrote that state law is clear: He must consider only current rates of withdrawal, “and may not speculate about or try to predict how rates of withdrawal will change in the future.”

Kathleen Ferris, a Phoenix attorney who chaired the state commission that wrote that law, said last week that the water department’s hands in this case were tied by the law’s language. “Maybe we weren’t foresighted enough to anticipate what would happen,” said Ferris, formerly a state water director and now executive director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.

Besides the large farmers, small operators were concerned enough to limit new pumping. Raj Rajendran, who owns 160 acres near Bowie, said a rush to plow up new farmland for irrigation could hurt current operations.

“I will be the first to see starving trees for water in South Bowie if more wells (are) drilled and pumped by other farms in the San Simon Valley since my farm is located at a higher elevation,” he wrote in comments submitted to the water resources department.

A Phoenix attorney who represented growers and other landowners who opposed the petition said the concerns are misplaced, noting that farming activity in that area is a fraction of what it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

“There was no indication in 1960s there was a water problem. Even if agriculture increases in the San Simon basin, there’s a long way to go before it reaches where it was then,” attorney Lee Storey said. “In other words, there’s room for growth.”


Information from: Arizona Daily Star, https://www.tucson.com

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