Prescott, AZ – SFX: SUV driving on dirt road
The Nature Conservancy's Dan Campbell drives down a dirt road through high desert ranchland a few miles north of Chino Valley. Many of the ranchers have subdivided their land into two-acre lots. Several residents have landscaped their yards with grass and trees. There's even a small pond here and there.
CAMPBELL: All that water is being pulled up out of a private well that's coming out of an aquifer. And there's no even monitoring of the amount of water that's coming up for these folks let alone controls over what they might do with it. If they wanted to and some do they could flood an entire pasture and raise fish not that that would be a sane thing to do but the water's free to them.
Campbell is driving on top of the Big Chino aquifer and right outside an Active Management Area or AMA. Prescott, Prescott Valley and Chino Valley are required by the state to recharge the aquifer with as much water as they're taking out. With recent population growth they have had to supplement their current supply. The tri cities have received permission to pump water from the Big Chino aquifer and import it into their communities via pipelines. They plan to monitor their municipal pumping because there's concern about the aquifer's connection to the Verde River. The Arizona Department of Water Resources' Doug Dunham says the almost 30-thousand individual well users in Yavapai County on the other hand don't have to monitor or conserve their pumping.
DUNHAM: There are no ground water rights outside the AMA. As long as you own property and are putting ground water to beneficial use you're free to use it. But that goes for everybody so there are no limitations on the use so even existing users out there a new user could come in adjacent to them and begin using regardless of the impact to the neighbors.
Prescott water resource manager Jim Holt says wells create a difficult challenge for them. He says the people who dig their own wells aren't near an existing municipal water service so they typically have their own septic tank. Holt says that raises another potential problem.
HOLT: So we have not only the problems with respect to development of wells in areas where an adequate water supply may not exist or the impacts on existing wells might occur but we also have the issue of individual septic tanks and whether or not those septic tanks may have issues with respect to contamination of water supplies. I do think it does create a problem for us. And I think it is one the Department of Water Resources continues to be concerned about as well.
The Department of Water Resources is involved with an organization called the Statewide Water Advisory Group that's been working on a solution that would reign in excessive well pumping and educate people about the limited resource. They want to find out how much is being pumped.
Chino Valley Mayor Karen Fann says holding well users responsible for conservation is not as easy as it sounds. People have been pumping water from their individual wells for decades.
FANN: You have to remember this is a very politically sensitive issue and while we need to move forward with making progress on that it needs to be done one step at a time. You cannot pass a law that is so drastic that is going to change people's way of lives. Change is good but people don't accept change easily.
Most local and state officials say that wells need to be more regulated and their owners need to be better informed. It's just a matter of when to enforce a policy and how to implement it.
No one really knows how much these well users are pumping but everyone agrees the impact on the area's groundwater supply is significant.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.