/ Modified jul 13, 2023 5:34 p.m.

Douglas AMA challengers get AMA back on the ballot

The existence of the Douglas AMA will go back to voters in 2023 General Election

cochise county seal The seal of Cochise County.

Just months after Cochise County voters approved the Active Management Area (AMA) for the Douglas Basin, the issue is headed back to voters.

A group in Cochise County gathered enough valid signatures to put the question on the ballot this November asking voters to decide whether or not the Douglas AMA should be kept in place.

1,310 signatures are required to successfully trigger another election to decide the fate of the Douglas AMA according to Cochise County Recorder David Stevens. Only voters who live in the Douglas Basin will be allowed to cast ballots on the question.

"We take a random sample, in this case, 106 (signatures) and we verified those, and we get a percentage of rejections out of that," Stevens told AZPM Thursday morning. "And then, we multiply it out through the total amount brought in, and if that number, out of that formula, is higher than the 1,310, it passed and it was ... Out of the 106, we had a 21.7% rejection rate — which was 83 accepted, 23 rejected. That translates into 459 signatures and subtract that off of the 2,117 (total), they come in with a whooping 1,658 and they needed 1,310."

Stevens said that most of the 21.7% of signatures that were rejected were due to ones signed by those who weren't registered voters or were illegible. The question on the ballot will be a yes/no question.

"If the yeses prevail, then the AMA will revert back to the INA (Irrigation Non-expansion Area) that was there before, which was much smaller than the AMA," said Stevens. "And if it fails, the AMA will stay in place."

The recall effort was led by McNeal resident Ann Waters. AZPM contacted Waters for comment, but she declined to answer questions about why she decided to file a petition to put the Douglas AMA back on the ballot.

According to a spokesperson with the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), the Douglas AMA is the only AMA in Arizona established by popular vote. In the 2022 general election, 52.52% of voters voted “Yes” for the Douglas AMA and 44.14% voted "No."

No other AMAs in Arizona have ever been challenged for removal.

Four other AMAs — located in Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal County, and Tucson — were established through the Arizona Groundwater Management Act that was passed by the Arizona State Legislature in 1980. The fifth AMA, the Santa Cruz AMA, was created in 1994 by the Legislature from a portion of the area once covered by the Tucson AMA, according to an Arizona Senate Issue Brief. According to Arizona law, that area includes the upper Santa Cruz Valley sub-basin.

So far, ADWR's management goal with the Douglas AMA is to attempt to reduce the rate the aquifer depletes by 2035 and "for every 10 years thereafter," according to ADWR's presentation at the June 28th public hearing.

But this goal has garnered criticism from Cochise County residents and politicians at the local and state level.

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes criticized ADWR's management goal. "This goal lacks specificity, teeth, benchmarks, and accountability," Mayes said during the June 28 ADWR public hearing. "The use of the word 'attempt' is less than ambitious ...

"The very fact that the voters here took matters into their own hands to create an AMA is a sign of the failure of the state to help local communities manage their groundwater supplies," Mayes continued. "The objective of ADWR should be to ensure that the young people of our counties — Cochise County, La Paz County, Yavapai County — will be able to stay in Cochise County for their lives and for the lifetimes of their children if that is what they desire."

Ash Dahlke, a Cochise County resident who lives within the Douglas Basin and was the president of the Political Action Committee AZ Water Defenders that put the Douglas and Willcox AMAs on the ballot, also criticized ADWR's management goal.

"The word 'attempt' in the current goal completely undermines the purpose of active management, makes the goal unable to be measured, and should be removed from the goal altogether." Dahlke wrote in an emailed public comment to ADWR's Docket Supervisor on June 27. "During ADWR’s first Douglas AMA meeting in January, ADWR stated that the goal needed to be measurable the proposed goal does not include any metric to make it measurable. None of the management goals for the existing AMAs contain the word 'attempt.' These goals state clearly what the residents of the basin aspire to for the conservation of their groundwater."

State Representative Gail Griffin also expressed concern about ADWR's management goal, writing in a public comment that "The Douglas Basin is a bi-national basin that is shared with Mexico which complicates management goals for the area, and this fact should be taken into consideration. Historically, this area has been engaged in natural resource use, primarily in farming and ranching. These agricultural uses should be addressed in the goal for this area, as it was done in the Pinal County AMA."

Douglas Mayor Donald Huish also wrote in an email to ADWR for public comment, stating that the department's management goal does not include Mexico, a distinction between the two water basins in the Douglas AMA, or any mention of the existing agriculture and cattle farming sectors in the area.

"I would strongly encourage the ADWR to open a satellite office in Douglas once the DAMA is ready to be implemented," Huish wrote in a June 28 email.

A decision on whether or not to adopt the management goal for the Douglas AMA is in late July.

To watch the recording of ADWR's June 28 meeting, click here.

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