Jim Downing, the President of the McMullen Valley Chamber of Commerce, takes issue with recent stories in a Phoenix newspaper about how increased heavy agricultural uses in the last decade are draining the state’s groundwater, at least when it comes to the McMullen Valley. While water levels in the valley’s wells have been dropping, he said this has been going on since the wells were first drilled. He said the rate of decline is much slower now that it was in decades’s past.
“Those wells have been going dry since the day they were drilled,” he said. “That’s just a fact of life.”
Downing, who is an engineer, was speaking at a meeting of the chamber board March 10 in response to a request for information from the Pioneer regarding wells in the area following the stories in the Phoenix newspaper.
Water levels in McMullen Valley wells were dropping much faster when there were 10,000 acres producing cotton in the early 1980s, Downing said. The levels were dropping by about 10 feet per year. Since then, area farmers have shifted to crops that use a lot less water. As a result, by 2002, water levels were being reduced by about three feet per year.
“Wells were going dry a lot faster in 1980 than they are today,” Downing said.
Downing said no one in Arizona “owns” the water. It’s considered a state resource. However, if you own property, you can pump the groundwater on that property as long as it’s put to useful purpose. He added there is no limit on how much can be pumped.
As for the alfalfa farms near Vicksburg, Downing said that is a different basin from McMullen Valley, and water use there does not affect the McMullen Valley. He added he was surprised when Rock Cramer and others began growing alfalfa there.
“If you had told me you could grow alfalfa hay there, I would’ve thought you were nuts,” Downing said.
The City of Phoenix owned much land in the McMullen Valley with the intention of transferring the water of Phoenix, Downing said. In 1992, they did a water study that concluded it would cost too much money to send the water to Phoenix. The city eventually sold the land to a company called International Farming Corp.
While there were 68 operating irrigation wells in 1986, when Phoenix owned a lot of property, Downing said there were 20 irrigation wells in 2011.
Chamber member James Rinehart said it was the chamber’s job to present real information on the water situation. He said the McMullen Valley was in good shape when it came to groundwater despite recent growth in the area.
“We have a lot more people here and a lot more activity,” he said.
Downing summarized the situation this way:
“Do we have 100 years of water? Yes. Are we going to have to drill deeper? Yes. Will it get more expensive? Yes.”
Of the water situation, Rinehart said, “We’re safe. It’s okay.”