KINGMAN - "The vast majority of people don't understand where their water comes from and it's not a problem or an issue until the water stops," Tom Whitmer said during Tuesday evening's Mohave County Republican Forum meeting.
Whitmer, the Arizona Water Resource Department Regional water planner, covered a variety of water-related issues in the talk.
Most residents are unaware of where their water comes from or what its quality is, he said. In an unofficial poll of about 50 homes in his neighborhood, most people answered that they got their water from their tap. Other answers included from snow in the mountains, rain, the Colorado River and one unique response, France. That resident explained that she only drank bottled water, he said.
He was once asked to speak on behalf of a small water company that wanted to expand, he said. The community was resistant to the expansion because it would mean that their water rates would go up. The owner of the water company wanted Whitmer to explain why the expansion was necessary.
When Whitmer arrived for the meeting there were only three people in attendance, the company owner, his wife and his child. The water company owner was upset with the turnout and asked Whitmer to return the next day.
The next day, the owner called and said the meeting had been moved to the high school gym. When Whitmer arrived the parking lot was full and the inside of the gym was packed with angry people.
"I asked him what he had done to get all those people there. He said he turned off their water," Whitmer said.
Water isn't even a priority in the state budget, he said. The department's budget was cut by 65 percent last year.
However, when water does become an issue, it becomes a big issue, Whitmer said. Everyone wants to protect what water they have and have access to as much water as possible, he said.
Most water issues erupt around who has first rights to water in an area, Whitmer said. Water rights in Arizona are very complex. There are five different types of water rights categories in the state of Arizona, groundwater, surface water, Colorado River water, effluent, and federal, reserve rights, he said.
The state defines surface water as water from any source flowing on the ground in a natural channel, Whitmer said. Rain falling on the ground and running into a creek or wash is considered surface water. Rain falling on the ground and running down a street is not considered surface water because it is not flowing in a natural channel, he said.
Surface water rights can get very tricky, he said. It used to be that if you sunk a well, which most people would consider groundwater use, near a river or creek and the volume of water dropped when you started using your well, the state determined that you were using surface water. The state has been working on that issue in the courts since 1975, he said.
Surface water rights are given to those who made the first claim on the water, Whitmer said. Most of the state's surface water rights were claimed before Arizona became a state. The power companies, which hold most of the surface water rights in the state, usually vigorously challenge any new claims, he said.
Groundwater is the most abundant source of water in the state. The state has 51 aquifer basins, Whitmer said. However, it is finite and not always found where it is most needed.
A number of the aquifers in the state are being mined for their water, he said. More water is being taken out than is being recharged back into the aquifer.
Active Management Areas are designed to help control the process of water mining, he said. The state has five AMAs, Phoenix, Pinal County, Prescott, Tucson and Santa Cruz. The rules of water use inside AMAs are very strict, Whitmer said. People who were using the water before the AMA was created get first rights. Groundwater use is restricted to those who have groundwater certificates from the state and the amount of water you can use is limited.
In order to build in an AMA, a developer has to prove that they have a 100-year water supply for the development and they cannot rely on groundwater alone for their proof, Whitmer said. No new agriculture developments are allowed within AMAs and there is mandatory reporting of water use to the state.
There are also groundwater withdraw fees that people must pay and no new wells can be drilled within 100 feet of a connection to a water provider, Whitmer said.
In areas outside of AMAs, such as Mohave County, groundwater use is not regulated by the state, he said. If you own property outside of an AMA, you can sink a well and use as much water as you need as long as you are not wasting it.
Developers are supposed to show there is an adequate supply of water for their projects. They have to prove that the use will not drop the level of the aquifer below 1,200 feet, but the rule isn't enforced like in an AMA, he said. Most developers just ask for a certificate of inadequate water supply and continue to build.
Only municipal and private party water providers must report water use to the state, he said.
"You can do pretty much whatever you want," Whitmer said - as long as it doesn't infringe on someone's surface water rights.
The departments started looking at the water situation in Mohave County in 2005, after receiving reports of several large subdivisions. A water study of the area's three major groundwater basins, the Hualapai Valley, the Sacramento Valley and the Detrital Valley, was started in 2005. Those studies are nearly complete. The department is working on finishing a groundwater model, which will let the state, and the county determine the effects of future growth and development on the county's water supplies.
Some of the results of the study show that the Hualapai Valley aquifer which supplies some of Kingman's water has about 3.8 million to 10.1 million acre-feet of water and recharges at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet a year, Whitmer said. The Sacramento Valley aquifer, which serves both Golden Valley and Kingman, has about 3.6 million to 9.5 million acre-feet of water and recharges at a rate of about 1,000 to 4,000 acre-feet per year. The Detrital aquifer, which serves White Hills and parts of Dolan Springs, has about 1.5 to 3.9 million acre-feet of water and recharges at a rate of about 1,000 acre-feet a year, he said.
Recharge rates are affected by elevation, temperature and rainfall, Whitmer said. The problem comes when people withdraw more water from an aquifer than what is being recharged into it.
In at least two of Mohave County's aquifers, depletion could be a problem, he said. The Detrital aquifer is in the best shape, with less than 300 acre-feet a year withdrawn.
The Sacramento Aquifer is bordering on unsafe yield, he said. Approximately, 3,700 acre-feet of water is withdrawn from the aquifer a year. With a recharge rate of only 1,000 to 4,000 acre-feet a year and the current drought, the area could be taking out more water than is going in.
The Hualapai Valley Aquifer is in the most danger, he said. Approximately, 9,050 acre-feet are taken out of the aquifer every year. The recharge rate of 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet a year can't keep up, Whitmer said.