The Water Wars of Arizona

The Water Wars of Arizona

SOURCE: New York Times DATE: July 19, 2018 SNIP: Aquifers are unimaginably complex and incredibly fragile; once tapped, they can take more than 6,000 years to replenish. Among the most vulnerable aquifers are those underlying the desert basins of the American Southwest. The Sulphur Springs Valley, in Arizona’s far southeastern corner, is one such basin. Surrounded on three sides by steep mountain ranges, the valley is an unusually flat and level 1,900-square-mile expanse of sagebrush and tanglegrass, which acts as a massive natural vessel for rain and snowmelt. In geological terms, it is a “closed basin,” as none of its water rejoins a river. Instead, it pools at the center, percolating into the ground. Centuries of evaporation have transformed this ancient lake bed into a dry alkali flat, inhabited today by a migratory roost of 30,000 sandhill cranes. Beneath it, buried in layers of sediment, lies all the water that never flowed to the ocean. Some of it is more than 20,000 years old. Around the turn of the 20th century, when sulfurous water was discovered bubbling out of the ground, cattle ranches and homesteads began to proliferate across the valley. One of the first deep water wells was drilled around 1915, when Texas farmers began adopting the oil industry’s turbine pump. Overnight, this innovation allowed agriculture to stray deep into arid climates, and in the span of a generation, the valley became home to a thriving agricultural economy. In the late 1990s, during the first few years of what would eventually turn out to be a 19-year-and-counting Arizona drought, only about 15,000 acre-feet of water were estimated to...