And the Problems That Come With It
Back in California, for the first time in history, Governor Jerry Brown mandated water use restrictions in April, responding to the state’s four-year drought. Meanwhile, Phoenix is uneasy as the Colorado River continues to wane.
Further east, in rural Arizona, we have our own set of water issues, including supply as well as infrastructure. Beneath the City of Globe, the Town of Miami and everything in between lie networks of aging water pipes, some of which are more than 100 years old. Yet, many of these pipes are what surrounding communities continue to rely on to bring water into their homes and carry sewage away. When these stop functioning, so do our neighborhoods.
So, how are rural communities like ours handling water issues here in the Southwest?
Where Our Water Comes From
The first step to understanding where our water comes from is understanding the lay of the land.
Unlike our metropolitan neighbors to the west, we do not rely on the Colorado River, or even the Salt River just north of us, for water. Instead, in the Globe-Miami region, we primarily rely on water collected from the groundwater basins beneath us, which are accessed by wells and then distributed by pumps and pipelines. Globe, Miami and everything in between lie in the Salt River Basin; meanwhile San Carlos lies in the neighboring Safford Basin to the east.
You may be wondering, what is a groundwater basin? Generally speaking, a groundwater basin is an area enclosing one or more bodies of groundwater, also called aquifers, and is typically expressed on the surface described by the topography of the land.
For the sake of this story, it is also important to know that within the Safford Basin is an area locally known as the Cutter Basin. The Cutter Basin lies beneath both Globe and the San Carlos Apache Reservation; its exact depth is not known, but estimates have suggested that it lies more than 1,600 feet deep.
Pipelines and Wells: The Evolution of Our Water Systems
The City of Globe lies within the Salt River Basin, but it does not rely on the water from it. Since the 1950s, the neighboring Cutter Basin, within the Safford Basin, has been Globe’s main source of water.
Prior to the ‘50s, Globe relied on water from the City of Globe Municipal Water System, formed in 1912, and supplied by wells at the intersection of Ice House Road and Six Shooter Canyon. Yet, the demand for water began to increase as the supply decreased. From 1931 to 1956, the Old Dominion Mine was providing water to the city. Residents also collected water from Pinal Creek.
Stanley Gibson, who served a total of 40 years on Globe City Council as mayor, vice mayor and council member, grew up in Globe during that time period.
“The city would call for a moratorium on watering yards and washing cars,” he recalls. “The only water source was Pinal Creek and the Old Dominion Mine. The city had to really scramble to try to find a source of water.”
The city began looking for new sites to drill wells. In 1957, a hydrologist by the name of Samuel Turner supposedly advised Globe’s city council to locate its new wells as close to the San Carlos Apache Reservation as possible in order to access water from Cutter Basin. And that’s exactly what the city did, drilling wells along the basin’s upper edge.
“If the council hadn’t proceeded with that, Globe would have dried up and blown away,” Gibson says.
The city drilled its first well, Well No. 1, in the Cutter Well Field in 1957. Four more wells were drilled there over the years; the most recent one was drilled in 2009. The Cutter Wells drop between 900 to more than 1,100 feet below the ground.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Water Company began serving the Miami region in 1955, when the company first opened and purchased the water distribution system from Arizona Public Service. In that first year, the company had 12,604 customers.
How Things Work Today
The Arizona Water Company pumps groundwater from local aquifers within the Salt River Basin into 15 different wells dispersed throughout Miami, serving Miami as well as Claypool, Central Heights, Russell Road, areas near Kellner Canyon and Highway 188, and parts of Globe. The majority of the system is gravity-fed, meaning that the water flows from higher elevations downward. The company’s system is an on-demand system and is not pumped 24 hours a day.
The City of Globe provides water to Downtown Globe, as well as Alhambra, Crestline, Skyline, Ice House, Six Shooter and Kellner Canyons, clear out to the prison and up to Globe Mobile Home Park on Highway 60.
Old infrastructure has been problematic. Some of the city’s water pipes date back to 1917, says city manager Brent Billingsley, which have caused losses throughout the system.
He says that the city is currently working to improve the water main transmission line that runs along US 60 from The Tap Room to Globe Mobile Home Park. It is notorious for breaking on a regular basis.
“People sometimes have to go six to eight hours without water while the city repairs it,” he says.
And, of course, the wells in this area aren’t getting any younger. Some of the Arizona Water Company’s wells are at least 40 years old. Now that one of Globe’s wells, Well No. 1, is almost 60 years old, it too has caused the city grief. In January, the city reported that the electric cable had rotted out, the pump was worn and there were holes in the casing. In January and February, the city contracted out repairs, and now the well is under control.
The city works within its capacity to fix these problems, Billingsley says, saving money when it can – like purchasing used equipment – and maximizing staff capabilities.
Dealing With A Finite Resource
To those who have spent years studying the Cutter Basin, like Gibson, who served on the Citizen’s Advisory on Water Issues in 1999, the levels in the wells have been a cause of concern.
In his words: “We’re pumping out of a bucket.”
The Arizona Department of Water Resources measures water levels in various wells throughout the state on an annual basis. The department refers to them as index wells. These wells are meant to provide some kind of idea of what water levels look like in a given basin. One of those wells includes Globe’s Well No. 4.
“We’ve been measuring [it] for quite some time,” says Teri Davis, the manager of the department’s hydrology division field services section. “I’ve measured [it] myself.”
“The water levels have gone down pretty significantly,” she adds.
“The depth to water was measured in January 1990 to be 563 feet below the land surface,” she later explains. “While the latest measurement recorded in the database in November 2013 was at 688 feet below the surface.”
That’s about a 125-foot drop in 23 years, or 5.4 feet per year.
Additionally, according to the city’s pumping records, provided by Gibson, from 1993 to 1996 the static water level in Well No. 3 dropped 55 feet. In 2008, its recorded total draw down from 1974 was 274 feet. Well No. 3 had been the city’s best producer, according to Gibson.
This is not to say that the basin cannot receive some amount of recharge – or water coming back in – such as runoff, groundwater from another basin, rainfall or snowmelt, which could bring water levels back up.
What is really important to understand, however, is how much water is going out of the basin versus how much is going in, Davis explains. If a basin is being depleted more than it’s being recharged, that poses a problem.
The department hasn’t been able to record water levels in other wells throughout the Globe-Miami region in recent years, Davis says. Prior to 2010, the department listed Safford Basin as a very high priority for a “basin sweep,” meaning the water levels in all wells within the basin would have been measured; however, layoffs in 2010 prevented that from happening, she says.
The Arizona Water Company’s water levels in Miami have not changed much over the past 12 years and are relatively constant, says Bill Garfield, the company’s president. At this time, the company’s water supply is adequate, and there is no immediate need to drill new wells, he adds.
Meanwhile, the City of Globe is actively considering other water options outside Cutter Well Field, according to Billingsley. In fact, the city is currently working with Clear Creek Associates, a water resources management firm, to study the feasibility of using the city’s treated wastewater for recharge and reuse.
“The city needs to get more serious about reuse,” he says, “And the study is a first step in that direction.”
“It’s an expensive enterprise,” he adds. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
What Happens to Water Down the Drain?
As long as Wes Sukosky has been Miami’s public works director (eight years now), he has been working to help improve the town’s sewer system.
It has been deemed one of the worst in the nation, he says, because the town is currently relying on a 100-year old sewer system that ran throughout Miami when it was laid out much differently than it is today.
“A lot of municipalities don’t see what we see,” Sukosky says. “We’ve uncovered manholes that the town didn’t even know about.”
Five or so years ago, the sewage line collapsed beneath Highway 60. Fortunately, the town was able to replace the line with federal money.
Things are starting to look up, though.
Eight years ago, the Town of Miami began a project to revamp its sewer system. The debt for the town is in the six million dollar range; it is a debt that the town will have to repay over a 40-year period, with low interest. That is why the sewer rates have gone up from $13 per month to $60 per month.
“People really don’t understand what the process of sewage treatment costs between electricity and pumping,” Sukosky says. “And it costs $4,000 to $5,000 just to treat it.”
“The sewer system was overlooked until things were deteriorating,” he adds. “We have to get this project done, otherwise that will be the end of Miami right there.”
Between 2011 to 2012, Freeport McMoRan provided funding and technical assistance to the Town of Miami in order to build a new wastewater treatment plant at the base of the No. 3 Tailings Pile, adjacent to Miami Wash.
The result is what is considered an A-plus water treatment facility, according to Sukosky. In other words, the sewage water going into the treatment plant has to come out crystal clear on the other side as A-plus effluent.
Miami’s wastewater treatment facility serves somewhere between 800 to 950 homes, in addition to businesses along Highway 60, like the Cobre Valley Regional Medical Center, Walmart and Safeway.
The sewage travels through lines beneath town to the facility, which produces roughly 200,000 to 275,000 gallons of treated water daily, water that is supposedly clean enough to drink. About 12 million gallons of treated water are sent to replenish aquifers upstream. The remaining majority is given to Freeport McMoRan. That was part of the deal — Freeport would receive the grade-A water in exchange for funding the construction of the plant.
Some 45,000 to 50,000 feet of sewer line run beneath Miami at depths ranging from 12 to 16-feet deep as they approach the sewer treatment plant, which is gravity-fed.
The main line begins at Mackey’s Camp. Three to four inch-wide laterals, or pipes, connect sewage from houses to the mains, the pipes running beneath the street. The main line runs beneath Highway 60; the distance from the end of Miami to the lift station is a little more than two miles. From the lift station, the sewage is pumped 75 feet to the treatment plant at the top of the tailings, where the sewage water is then separated from solids, treated, chlorinated and either sent directly to Freeport McMoRan or dechlorinated and then released to replenish the aquifers. Water is pressed from the remaining sludge, which is sent to a landfill or used for mine reclamation or farm application.
Back in the City of Globe, a similar process occurs. The city also operates a wastewater treatment plant that processes wastewater from downtown Globe, Crestline, Skyline, the Pioneer Hills and Fry’s Grocery.
And, like Miami, Globe also currently does not hang on to its treated wastewater. In 1983, the city signed a contract with mining company Inspiration Copper (now Freeport McMoRan) agreeing that it would discharge its treated wastewater into Pinal Creek. As a result, Globe’s wastewater is sent to the Pinal Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility located along Pinal Creek Road, where it is then treated and discharged into Pinal Creek. The facility processes 600,000 gallons a day.
Wastewater arrives to the Pinal Creek facility by gravity-flow. The facility has been there since the ‘70s, but as Billingsley and Barnes point out, it’s been upgraded since.
Like Miami’s sewage treatment facility, the Pinal Creek facility also has a grid separator that pulls solids, sand and rock from the wastewater. The water at the Pinal Creek facility enters an oxidation ditch, where it goes through an oxidation process, removing harmful materials. It passes through a secondary clarifier separating the solids from the liquids. The water is then chlorinated, dechlorinated, and discharged into Pinal Creek, while the solids are pressed and then sent to the landfill. In fact, the city just invested in a used belt press earlier this year.
All of this, and yet many of the unincorporated areas around Globe-Miami have their own water infrastructure to deal with, including private, domestic wells that are exempt from reporting requirements and regulation. As of 2009, there were approximately 5,680 of these wells within Gila County registered with the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
About four and a half years ago, the Tri-City Regional Sanitary District began a project to create a uniform sewer system for the unincorporated areas between Globe-Miami. Those include Lower Miami, Claypool, Miami Gardens, Country Club Manor, Midland City, Bechtel Tract and Central Heights.
“We have a tremendous problem in the area between Globe and Miami,” says Bob Zache, who has served as president of the district for the last 30 years.
The problem, he says, is that roughly 90 percent of the unincorporated areas in the region are still relying on aging cesspools, which are essentially holes in the ground where sewage is released, or dysfunctional septic tanks, as a means of sewage disposal and treatment. Either one could cause groundwater contamination. While both have potential to be constructed in a hazard-free manner, they rarely are. It is yet another repercussion of living in old, rural neighborhoods with aging homes.
“When I was a kid growing up there, people had outhouses, and everyone had a cesspool,” says Zache, who grew up in and around Miami.
His mother’s home, which he has been trying to sell, has a cesspool functioning as a septic tank. For that reason, he’s had three or four buyers walk away.
“It’s a huge economic issue. There are vacant homes all over that people can’t sell,” he says.
“I’ve heard horror stories of cesspool covers collapsing or sewage seeping up,” he adds. “That’s what we’re trying to fix.”
Currently the district is working to get funding through the USDA’s Rural Development Office. Completing the project will be a matter of time, funding, engineering and dealing with easements, but Zache remains optimistic.
Whether it is here in Globe-Miami, in our neighboring states, or in other parts of the world, the value of water cannot be ignored. As governments, as well as communities, corporations and innovators continue to find ways to address the problems surrounding water, how we choose to handle water as a whole will pave our future. The better we engineer our water infrastructure, and the better we manage our water, the better off we will be for years to come.
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.