BULLHEAD CITY — Mohave County water issues were the focus of a recent presentation at the 2018 Arizona Tax Conference.
“I wanted the other assessors in the state to understand how to look at these water issues throughout the state,” said Jeanne Kentch, Mohave County assessor. “It’s not all about Maricopa and seeing what they have to deal with. Our issues are different — we’re looking at issues that are currently changing as we speak.”
For the county, the increasing number of large agricultural wells drilled in the Hualapai Basin, an aquifer that supplies Kingman, creates a multi-layered problem — tracking and valuing the wells themselves for the county rolls and the sustainability of so many industrial wells pulling from what may be a diminishing aquifer.
In May 2017, the Arizona Department of Water Resources estimated the annual withdrawal of the aquifer increased to 32,000 acre-feet, almost four times its annual recharge. In February of this year, the US Geological Service confirmed the estimate and estimated the potential withdrawal could exceed 100,000 acre-feet per year, Kentch said.
An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of land to one foot deep. It’s about 325,000 gallons, enough water to support up to three households for one year.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Legislature appropriated $100,000 to ADWR for an independent consultant to estimate the rate of groundwater depletion in the northwest basins planning area and estimate the number of years remaining in the basin.
“(Arizona Rep.) Regina Cobb was instrumental in getting the state to pay a little bit of money for this study,” Kentch said. “It costs a lot of money to do these studies and ($100,000) is not enough because we need to do this almost every year or every couple of years in order to find out how far we’re pulling. We can go off the monitor wells to see how far the water level is dropping, but unless you know how big a pool you have underneath there — how much water, what the height is doing — you don’t know how much is going out.”
Mohave County well owners, as in other rural areas, can pump any amount of groundwater without reporting their water use to anyone. Nor does the state have to inform the county when a drilling permit is granted, Kentch said.
“All they need is a permit from ADWR to say ‘We’re going to drill a well and it’s going to be this deep and this wide,’ and (ADWR) gives them a certification to say OK. There’s nothing that stops them. There is nothing on the books anywhere in the entire state that says ‘do you have enough water to drill that well?’ ”
The need to track the number of well applications is a recent phenomenon. The assessor’s office used the well map on ADWR’s website to get the list of wells requiring valuation.
Under state law, developers can’t build subdivisions in some areas of the state unless they can prove they have a 100-year water supply, Kentch explained. Prior to 2014 there was little farming in the county other than on the Colorado River and Fort Mojave Indian Tribal lands using Colorado River water allocation. Most agriculture use of land in the county was grazing land.
An investor/developer attempted to create many subdivisions in the county, but couldn’t show ADWR a 100-year water supply was available and ultimately the subdivisions failed, Kentch said. The same investor did some small-scale farming on one of the failed subdivisions, as farming did not require the same 100-year water supply certification.
Suddenly the number of agricultural wells drilled in the Hualapai Valley Basin skyrocketed, Kentch said.
The developer submitted to ADWR about 85 large well applications in 2014 and 40 or more since then, Kentch said. With the other applications for large wells, the total count of new applications for large wells county-wide is about 150.
“Originally the land was to be developed and that changed, now it’s agriculture,” Kentch said. “Other assessors have been hearing that we’ve got a bunch of agriculture up here now, but they didn’t realize how big the wells are and how much they cost to put in until we did a presentation on it a year ago.”
The volume of water necessary to farm in the area requires large deep wells, not addressed in valuation literature, Kentch explained.
“In the rest of the state, you don’t need a 24-inch wide, 1,200-foot deep well to be put in,” Kentch said. A similar county commissioned well cost more than $1 million, which made it apparent that significant value was escaping the roll.
Mohave County commissioned a study to establish market-based costs associated with wells of the type found. Each similarly equipped well generated an additional $13,000 to $14,000 in annual taxes.
Kentch said she’d like to see the county granted a rural management area in order to protect the Hualapai Basin water supply.
“A rural management area would allow us to have our own public policy to protect our area,” Kentch said. “We don’t have that ability right now — all we can do is go off what the state law says. I’m not against farmers — it’s unfortunate that because I’m valuing the wells, they think that I’m against farming. But it’s just I feel that we need to farm efficiently and effectively and water conservatively.”
In the coming weeks, Kentch will introduce the same tax conference presentation to Mohave County Board of Supervisors and the public.
“We still need to fight for Mohave County’s water,” Kentch said. “Just because we got that $100,000, we still need to tell the governor that we need to protect our own area here.”