The day the Duckels family moved to a Cochise County neighborhood in Arizona called Kansas Settlement, they lost their water. When Duckels turned on the faucet, she heard a spitting noise, but nothing came out. It didn’t take long to find the source of the issue: The aquifer beneath her house had dropped below the bottom of her well. The pump was pulling on dry dirt.
Surrounding the Duckels property on all sides are farms owned by a massive dairy operation called Riverview. State records show that Riverview owns more than 600 wells in Cochise County. The majority were drilled before the company arrived, but the wells that Riverview drilled in recent years are by far the deepest, with some of them reaching more than 2,000 feet into the earth — so deep that the water is hot from proximity to the earth’s crust. This year alone, the company has bought or drilled at least a dozen thousand-plus-foot wells.
Duckels was referring to the Riverview board member who runs the company’s operations in the area, and her neighbors all feel the same way. Residents have shown up at public meetings to shout at Riverview representatives, sparred in local Facebook groups, and flown rogue reconnaissance flights over dairy facilities. Riverview is hardly the only reason for the area’s water crisis — the desert aquifers had never been very robust, and a climate-change-fueled drought had made the area drier than ever — but Riverview and other large farms growing nuts and alfalfa are by far the area’s largest water users.
The growing water shortage is driving freedom-loving denizens of the Willcox Basin to a radical solution: state regulation. If voters approve the new rules, it would be one of the first times a rural community has voted to restrict its own water usage, and limit the power of large-scale agriculture.