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Water Resource Issues in the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area - Watershed Groups

Mt Wrightson

Mt. Wrightson, Cienega Creek Basin

Population growth and associated concerns about sustainable water supplies, water level declines, increased agricultural demand and environmental protection activities have resulted in groundwater studies, regional planning actions, establishment of conservation easements and other activities in the planning area.

Water resource issues have been identified in the Southeastern Arizona Planning Area by community watershed groups, through the distribution of surveys, and from other sources.  Primary issues identified are the lack of sufficient data to make informed water management decisions, legal issues related to surface water availability and the legal nature of water supplies, endangered species act implications, and concerns about whether there will be sufficient water supplies to meet future demand.  A number of water systems have reported concerns about aging infrastructure and the lack of financial resources to make capital improvements.

Watershed Groups

Several watershed groups have formed in the planning area to address water resource concerns.  Groups currently active within the planning area are the Middle San Pedro Watershed Partnership, the Eagle Creek Partnership, the Gila Watershed Partnership, the Lower San Pedro Watershed Partnership, the Upper San Pedro Partnership and the Willcox Playa Watershed Group.  A complete description of participants, activities and issues is found in Appendix D. Primary issues identified by these groups are summarized as follows:


  • Excessive growth in some areas
  • Unregulated lot splits
  • Desire to maintain rural setting, including agriculture, at current levels in Gila Valley

Water Supplies and Demand:

  • Limited groundwater data
  • Pumping impacts by Mexico on the San Pedro River and downstream users
  • Large volume of overdraft in Willcox Basin
  • Increased agricultural production in some basins


  • Unresolved Indian water rights settlements
  • Unresolved surface water adjudication
  • Potential impact of adjudication court subflow definition
  • Interbasin transfer prohibition
  • Mandatory water adequacy required for all new subdivisions in Cochise County

Water Quality:

  • Poor quality groundwater and surface water in some areas
  • Ability to meet new arsenic standard
  • Concern about Superfund site and poor quality groundwater conditions


  • Endangered Species Act (ESA) issues, critical habitat designation and mitigation efforts
  • Impact of invasive species (Tamarisk) on surface water supply
  • Lawsuits from environmental groups
  • Potential impacts on riparian areas by continuation of current pumping


  • Limited funding resources for planning, projects, infrastructure and studies
  • Extremely high cost of water augmentation projects


  • Drought impacts on surface water supplies, agriculture and cattle ranching


  • Different perceptions of issues and goals in Benson community
  • Difficulty in getting principle players to the table to discuss water
  • Several high hazard unsafe dams in Gila Valley area
  • Regular flooding in the Duncan-Virden area
  • Opposition to government assistance to obtain groundwater information
  • Potential loss of Fort Huachuca due to water/ESA issues
  • Federal mandate to achieve sustainability by 2011 in the Sierra Vista subwatershed
  • Political obstacles to potential water augmentation projects
  • Potential for subsidence

Two of the partnerships in the planning area, the Gila Watershed Partnership in the Safford, Duncan Valley and part of the Morenci basin and the Upper San Pedro Partnership (USPP) in the Upper San Pedro Basin, have been organized for a number of years and have completed many projects. The Upper Gila Watershed Partnership initiated a Fluvial Geomorphology Study of the Upper Gila River that was funded through the Department’s Water Protection Fund Program (98-054WPF), Graham County and the Bureau of Reclamation.  The study area was of the Gila River from the boundary of the San Carlos Apache Reservation to the New Mexico Border.  Its purpose was to demonstrate ways to manage the river, taking into account the geomorphic processes that dominate the fluvial systems (USBOR, 2004).  It also produced a study on current and projected water demand for the watershed.

A number of water management practices have been implemented in the Sierra Vista subwatershed portion of the Upper San Pedro Basin.  These include groundwater recharge, direct effluent use, water conservation ordinances, municipal conservation programs, water management and land use policies. 

The USPP annually adopts and updates a water management and conservation plan for the Sierra Vista portion of the Basin.  In addition, beginning in 2004, the Partnership must annually prepare a report (referred to as the “321 Report”) on water use management and conservation measures that have been implemented and are needed to restore and maintain the sustainable yield of the regional aquifer by September 30, 2011 (Public Law 108-136).

San Pedro River

San Pedro River near Palominas

On March 21, 2006 the Cochise County Board of Supervisors adopted the Sierra Vista Sub-watershed Water Conservation and Management Policy Plan (Plan) to guide development in the unincorporated areas of the subwatershed.5   According to the Plan, development density will be no greater than one unit per acre unless the subdivider incorporates water saving measures that mitigate any increase in usage over the current zoning, and effluent is recharged or densities are transferred from elsewhere in the subwatershed.  The Plan also prohibits increasing densities within two miles of the SPRNCA. (USGS, 2007)  Many of the Plan’s policies are carried out through the Sierra Vista Sub-watershed Overlay District and other changes to the code that went into effect on January 5, 2007.  The overlay district provides water use restrictions, in addition to those already required in the county, on new development within the subwatershed; it does not change the underlying zoning.6    (Cochise County Code § 1802.2) Concurrent with the passage of the overlay district, the Cochise County zoning regulations were amended to encourage transfer of development rights from the area within two miles of the SPRNCA boundary and one mile of the Babocomari River to other portions of Cochise County. (Cochise County Code § 2208.3)  In addition to the Plan the Babocomari Area Plan adopted in 2005 indicates that future upzoning should not increase groundwater withdrawals beyond the current assumed impact of one unit per four acres. The plan also discourages new wells in the 100-year floodplain of the Babocomari River. (Cochise County, 2006)


Santa Cruz River

Santa Cruz River, San Rafael Basin

The USPP and its members have initiated many conservation programs including the Water Wise program, a toilet rebate program and water conservation ordinances.  Cochise County has a Water Conservation Office and Sierra Vista and Bisbee have incorporated water conservation into their zoning codes, which are as strict, or stricter than those required by Cochise County.  Fort Huachuca, a partnership member, has implemented aggressive conservation efforts at the Fort that have reduced on-post water consumption by almost 45% since 1993.  The USPP is also evaluating water augmentation options including the costs and feasibility of constructing a pipeline to transport Central Arizona Project Water to the area.

Because the Upper San Pedro groundwater basin extends into Mexico, the Partnership is pursuing research and cooperative efforts with Mexico. Conservation efforts in the Mexican portion of the basin have been underway, including establishment of the Ajos-Bavispe National Forest and Wildlife Refuge and a 10,000 acre private reserve in the watershed (Sierra Vista Herald, 2006). (See the Upper San Pedro Partnership website for more information at

In 2006, Congress passed the U.S.- Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act (U.S. Public Law 109-448) that authorized $50M over 10 years for the study of four transboundary aquifers including the Santa Cruz and San Pedro aquifers in Arizona. Plans are underway to identify and pursue scientific and informational studies, in particular the creation of a physically-based hydrologic model of each binational basin.

In response to concerns of water planners, local citizens and environmental groups about the impacts of groundwater development, the Department, in collaboration with the USGS and funding from local partners, began conducting hydrogeologic investigations in 2005 to improve the understanding of water resources in two areas within the planning area: 1) the middle San Pedro Basin, which includes the Benson subwatershed and a portion of the Lower San Pedro Basin and 2) the Willcox and Douglas Basins.  These investigations will assess the existing data collection networks and examine the current state of knowledge of the groundwater system, quantify the water budget for the area, including total water in storage, and establish a hydrologic monitoring network for on-going assessment of the aquifer.  The San Pedro investigation was expected to take seven years and result in a groundwater flow model. The Willcox/Douglas investigations were scheduled for three years and include establishment of a monitoring network for each basin, an inventory of agricultural groundwater pumpage in each basin, and a preliminary assessment of subsidence in the Willcox Basin (USGS, 2006b). Recent State budget cuts will delay completion of these studies. In 2008, the Department produced a Water Level Change Map report for the Willcox Basin as part of the Willcox/Douglas study.

Finally, state legislation passed in 2007 (HB 2300) authorizes formation of an Upper San Pedro Water District whose purpose is to maintain the aquifer and base flow conditions needed to sustain the upper San Pedro river and to help meet the water supply needs and water conservation requirements for the communities within the district.  The legislation allows the District and a District Board to be established if approved by qualified voters of the District.  A District Organizing Board has been formed to prepare organizational, financial and election plans for the District. If approved, the District could acquire water supplies and water rights and operate augmentation projects. It could issue revenue bonds, impose fees and other taxes and receive loans or grants from the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority to finance necessary projects.  The date of the election has not yet been scheduled.


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