Bubbling underneath Arizona’s thriving wine industry lies enormous aquifers filled with water. Thousands of years ago, this water began its journey in clouds above Arizona’s mountains, then fell as snow and rain, eventually flowing downward into the valleys below.
In southeastern Arizona, rain has fallen for millennium on the ring of mountains surrounding the Sulphur Springs Valley and is now stored in an aquifer. This water quenches the thirst of not just wine grapes, but also powerful agricultural industries.
In the heat of the summer of 2019, the concept of global warming is very real, but the concept of a worldwide war on water remains largely academic. Except in places like Willcox where residents’ wells are going dry.
The History of Willcox Water
Six million years ago, rain and snow runoff began depositing fresh water into rivers and streams flowing down the mountainsides surrounding Willcox. Located deep in the high desert, water couldn’t find an outlet to the sea. Instead, water found its home by seeping slowly into the earth and forming an aquifer in the Willcox playa in Sulphur Springs Valley. This gigantic aquifer, called the Willcox Basin, covers 1,911 square miles in Cochise and Graham counties. Some of today’s water is more than 20,000 years old.
In the 1940s, farmers began using wells to tap into the Willcox Basin providing sufficient water to allow Arizona’s hostile desert climate to become slowly, but happily populated. If you owned land and wanted water for your family and your farm, all you had to do was file a little paperwork and then dig a well a few hundred feet or so. Whatever was underneath your land was yours.
For decades, the level of water in the Willcox Basin saw only modest declines as the water drawn for residents and farms was replaced by 13 inches of desert rain and 4 inches of snow each year.
On the surface, the playa appears dry. When the summer monsoons explode over Willcox, the playa fills up creating a sparkling sea in the midst of the desert. This fresh water soon sinks below the surface, refilling the basin and turning the playa dry again.
Nothing to worry about here. Until large agricultural companies moved in and began digging wells deeper and deeper into the Willcox Basin.
Water Seeps Out of Arizona
The grapes that are pressed into those delicious Arizona wines we enjoy with our dinner need irrigation in the desert to thrive.
Grapes are technically a “low-water use” crop. According to Rod Keeling, a farmer in Sulphur Springs Valley, a standard cotton farm uses about seven feet of water to irrigate each acre of land a year, whereas his vineyard needs just eight inches of water per acre.
Although the water feeding the agricultural regions surrounding Phoenix and Tucson is regulated, Arizona’s rural water regulations are virtually non-existent making Arizona’s land, and the water underneath it, supremely attractive to people from regions with depleted aquifers.
In the mid-2000s, large agricultural companies began quietly moving in and tapping the Willcox Basin. They dug high-tech wells 1,000 feet deep or more, at costs of more than $100,000 per well. They planted acres of high-water-use crops like corn and almond trees to ship to foreign countries. They built cattle feed lots harboring more than 7,500 cows that produce milk for places outside of Arizona.
Drought in Arizona
Although drought is the most destructive of any weather calamity, droughts are extremely difficult to define, predict, and monitor. According to Deke Arndt, NOAA, “Drought sits on the slow end of the time scale, relative to weather systems represented by symbols on weather maps. It’s described over weeks, months, seasons (probably the sweet spot), years and decades. That’s some range.”
The worst drought in Arizona’s history occurred between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. Barely any rain fell. Plants shriveled, animals died, and local tribes fled the area. By the mid-12th century this drought had exceeded the severity, duration, and extent of any drought that has occurred since, including recent droughts.
Scientists are carefully reviewing this drought because its severity, extent, and persistence under normal climate conditions can provide insights into potential future droughts in Arizona.
“A key feature of anticipated 21st century droughts in southwest North America is the concurrence of elevated temperatures and increased aridity,” according to Woodhouse, Meko, MacDonald, Stahle, and Cook of the National Academy of Sciences. The biggest difference between Arizona’s early drought of the 9th to 12th centuries and the current drought is the increase in temperature.
Combine massive water withdrawals from the aquifer with the recent drought and elevated temperatures, and the vast Willcox Basin water table is suddenly and rapidly lowering.
Family’s wells are going dry. The land has begun to sink. Fissures are rupturing the earth. The losses in the aquifer system have caused the earth to compact in places and these portions of the aquifer can no longer be refilled by rainfall.
Don’t think this is real? Here is the story of a family in Willcox whose taps began spitting sand soon after they moved in to their new home, by Noah Gallagher Shannon, The New York Times.
Sinking land, compacted earth, rupturing fissures, spitting sand, and an emptying aquifer: Loud signals that Sulfur Springs Valley has become a hot point in the world’s war for water.
How Cape Town Overcame Its Water Shortage
Like Willcox, the rainy season has always filled up the aquifers that feed Cape Town, South Africa, and, in spite of the worst drought in a century, Cape Town’s citizens remained happily oblivious. In January 2017, Saya Pierce-Jones, then a general assignment reporter for Cape Town’s Smile 90.4 FM radio station, received unsettling news: city-wide consumptions levels had not changed a smidgen, but water levels had plummeted, according to Arizona Public Media.
Day Zero, the theoretical day when Cape Town’s reservoirs run dry, was impending.
Pierce-Jones quickly changed her beat and became the radio station’s ardent water reporter. She spent hours at water meetings. She visited dams. She received a potted cactus as a gift for Valentine’s Day and kept a bottle of treated wastewater on her desk. Her radio station started a Facebook group: Smile Water Warriors. She spent the next two years warning her listeners of a future without water.
Because of the hard work of Pierce-Jones, Smile 90.4 FM, and many others, Cape Town reduced its water consumption to just 13 gallons per day per person. (Compare Cape Town to Arizona, where we consume 146 gallons per day per person, according to the University of Arizona.)
In less than two years, water conservation became a daily facet of life for Cape Town residents. Day Zero is postponed, at least for now.
Water is infinite, right? Something we take for granted – but Cape Town’s story is just one of many signs that all of us in Arizona and the American West need to drastically change our approach to water. Right now.
What You Can Do
If you’d like to learn more about Arizona, Cape Town, and the worldwide war on water, a host of websites, books, and news articles are listed below. But what can you personally do?
First, the next time you take a sip of your favorite Arizona wine, remember this: It took 66 gallons of water to produce this single glass of wine (Pearce, 2018, p. 8). And, the water that made this wine what it is today has been resting peacefully in an aquifer for millennium.
Enjoy your wine. Relish it. Treat it like the true gift that it is.
Second, make your voice heard. Donate to organizations that are bringing water issues to the forefront of our daily lives. Vote for politicians who make quality urban and rural water management one of their platforms.
Third, Remember that new mines use massive quantities of water, so vote against new mines every opportunity you can find. A few jobs versus water for your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Seems like an obvious choice.
Fourth, start conserving water by starting simply. Don’t let your faucet just randomly run. Allowing cold water to pour into empty milk jugs while it turns to hot, then watering your plants with it, could save more than 5,000 gallons of water per year.
Multiply this effect by making sure there are no leaks in your watering system. Cover your pool whenever you aren’t using it – day or night, summer or winter. Take a shower every other day, not every day. Don’t wash your car every week – how about just twice a month?
Next, step it up: That hamburger on a toasted sesame seed bun with tomato, onion, melted cheese, and fries you had for lunch today required 800 gallons of water before it arrived at your table. Switching your lunches from a hamburger to a grilled cheese sandwich or two-egg omelet will save as much as 8,000 gallons of water per year (Pearce, 2018, p. 8).
Now, step it up: Remove your grass and replace it with natural landscaping that requires little to no water. If you live in an area where you have been gifted with flood irrigation, ignore it. Take out that grass anyway.
If you are fortunate enough to have a farm, take out your flood irrigation and replace it with drip irrigation. Or better, take out high-water use crops, like corn, and replace them with low-water use crops, like barley or guayule, a desert crop grown for its natural rubber under the bark. Or, even better: wine grapes.
Yes, you will make a significant investment and it may be years before you can turn a profit again. You’ll be paid back by the water of life.
Finally, do you really need to flush your toilet every time you tinkle? Instead, follow this rule: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”
I know what you’re thinking: “Seriously?” So, let me ask you this: Do you really want your tap water to turn into sand?
You may frequent this blog because you love wine. However, as you can see by today’s post, this blog has taken a hard left turn into the world of climate change. We’ll keep talking about delicious wines from all over the world, but we’ll also talk about the many efforts grape farmers and others are taking to reduce their imprint on our beautiful planet. If you’d like to learn more, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo: Aerial view from the northeast of Willcox Playa, near Willcox, Arizona, January 2019 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International).
Arizona Water Resources
Active Groundwater Level Network. (2018, July 20). U.S. Geological Survey.
Arndt, D. (2017, February 2). Western drought: It ain’t over ’til…well, it ain’t over. NOAA.
Brown, S. G. & Schumann, H. H. (1969). Geohydrology and Water Utilization in the Willcox Basin, Graham and Cochise Counties, Arizona. U.S. Department of the Interior: Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 1859, Prepared in Cooperation with the Arizona State Land Department.
Gardner, P.M. & Heilweil, V. M. (2009). Evaluation of the Effects of Precipitation on Ground-Water Levels from Wells in Selected Alluvial Aquifers in Utah and Arizona, 1936–2005 (PDF). USGS.
Groundwater Flow Model of Willcox Basin Completed. (2018, July 28). Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Groundwater Rights. (2018, January 12). Arizona Department of Water Quality.
Harshbarger, J. W., Lewis, D. D., Skibitzke, H. E., Heckler, W. L., and Kister, L. R. (1966). Arizona Water: Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 1648. Department of Interior.
History of Water Management in Arizona. (2014, March 27). Arizona Department of Water Resources.
History of Water Management in Arizona (Timeline). (n.d.). Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Hydrology: Willcox Regional Model. (2018, July 16). Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Hydrology of the Willcox Basin: Groundwater Conditions. (2014, March 27). Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Residential Water Use. (2017). Making Action Possible for Southern Arizona: University of Arizona.
Statewide Planning Water Atlas: Section 3.14. (2008, June 10). Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Water Rights in Arizona. (n.d.). Law for Seniors: State of Arizona Supreme Court.
Woodhouse, C. A., Meko, D. M., MacDonald, G. M., Stahle, D. W., & Cook. E. R. (2010, December 4). A 1,200-year perspective of 21st century drought in southwestern North America. PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, United States.
News Articles About the Worldwide War on Water
Asimov, E. (2019, April 30). How Does Your Love of Wine Contribute to Climate Change? The New York Times.
Blake, C. (2017, May 8). Arizona farmers expand water conservation, crop options amid drought. Farm Progress.
Broeder, C. (2018, July 26). ADWR releases Willcox Basin groundwater flow model. Arizona Range News.
Ferris, K. (2018, February 7). Your Turn: Arizona lawmakers want to decimate your groundwater (again). The Republic | azcentral.com.
Freshwater Crisis. (n.d.). National Geographic.
Givetash, L. (2019, March 19). Climate change threatens U.K. with fresh water shortage within 25 years. NBC News.
Goveia, K. (2017, September 11). Water Woes Run Deep in New River and Desert Hills. North Phoenix News.
Hallock, B. (2014, January 27). To make a burger, first you need 660 gallons of water. Los Angeles Times.
Hernandez, N. (2018, February 8). Arizona water shortages leave farmers in a bind (video). Cronkite News.
Journalist on water beat helped Cape Town avoid ‘Day Zero’. (2018, March 30). Arizona Public Media.
McGlade, C. (2015, June 6). The battle for water when the wells run dry. The Republic | azcentral.com.
Parker, L. (2016, August). What Happens to the U.S. Midwest When the Water’s Gone? National Geographic.
Perrone, D. & Jasech, S. (2017, September 28). Dry groundwater wells in the western United States. Environmental Research Letters, 12(10).
Porier, S. (2018, December ). Study: Continued groundwater decline in Willcox Basin. Herald Review Media.
Rethinking Groundwater Use in Willcox. (2018, April 23). Arizona Public Media.
Runyon, L. (2018, May 2). Western Water Managers Meet to Relieve Colorado River Tension. Arizona Public Media.
Runyon, L. (2018, June 6). Climate Change Means a Hotter, Drier Future in the Colorado River Headwaters, Study Says. Arizona Public Media.
Shannon, N. G. (2018, July 22). The Water Wars of Arizona. The New York Times.
Books About Climate Change
deBuys, W. (2011). A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gertner, J. (2019). The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future. New York: Random House.
Henson, R. The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change: Second Edition. Boston: American Meteorological Society.
Ketcham, C. (2019). This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West. New York: Viking.
Nesbit, J. (2018). This is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes are Converging on America. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.
Pearce, F. (2018). When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. Boston: Beacon Press.
Reisner, M. (1993). Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Viking.
Sedjo, R. (2019). Surviving Global Warming: Why Eliminating Greenhouse Gases Isn’t Enough. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
The Climate Report: National Climate Assessment-Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States. (2019, January). Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.
Non-Profit Organizations Battling the Worldwide War on Water
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