DEL RIO SPRINGS -- By state government estimates, the rare artesian springs that drew so many people to Del Rio over the eons will be gone by 2025.
The flow of the largest springs complex in the Prescott Active Management Area has dropped from about six cubic feet per second in 1935 to a current low flow of only 0.5 cfs, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which predicted the springs will dry up by 2025.
"We're pretty much right on track" to dry up the springs in 2025, said Walt Anderson, a Natural History professor from Prescott College, during a recent public tour of the springs.
"It's probably hopeless," said local geologist Ed Wolfe, another tour guide.
Arizona water law does not recognize the connection between groundwater and surface water, and residential wells continue to proliferate without restrictions. Tour leaders expressed hopes that the current Del Rio owners will try to preserve the springs' ecological values and avoid building around them.
The local Highlands Center for Natural History organized the November tour to explore the historical and ecological values of Del Rio Springs on the sesquicentennial of the arrival of Anglo residents.
"We're visiting a site of great historical significance," Anderson noted. "It's one of a kind, really."
The first Del Rio residents described a stream flowing north from the springs to the Upper Verde River. They named it Cienega Creek.
By the time she was growing up at the Del Rio Ranch in the 1930s and 1940s, there was no creek except during flooding events, Mary Converse Hardin said.
She recalled how water gushed out of the ground when her father drilled a new well just west of Highway 89. It immediately lowered the water table and the neighbors had to get pumps, she said.
The Del Rio Springs are now at 10 percent of their pre-settlement production, said Gary Beverly, who also helped lead the November tour. He is Education Committee chair of the local Citizens Water Advocacy Group and chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, as well as a long-time Chino Valley resident.
CWAG has been involved in several tours over the past year to honor the sesquicentennial and use the Del Rio Springs as an example of what could happen elsewhere if the Prescott Active Management Area continues to deplete its groundwater supplies.
"The natural springs here are living on borrowed time," Beverly said. "This is an opportunity with the 150th anniversary to call attention to the watershed as a whole," as well as the "clear and present danger to the Upper Verde River." The upper river's baseflow depends entirely on groundwater resources.
Tour participants saw a wide variety of birds that depend on the springs, while Anderson deftly named each one as it flew or perched nearby - a Northern Harrier, Red-winged Blackbirds, Wilson's Snipe, Red-naped Sapsucker, Marsh Wren, American Robins, White-crowned Sparrows and Red-tailed Hawk. A pair of bald eagles nest in one of the trees each year.
Ninety percent of Arizona's wetlands are gone because of human development, Anderson noted.
And many rural residents of the Prescott Active Management Area (AMA) are seeing their wells drop, including him, Beverly noted.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) released a new report Tuesday called "Arizona's Next Century: A Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability."
The report notes that residential wells in the northern Chino Valley area have dropped an average of 20-30 feet since 1994 because of groundwater pumping, including the City of Prescott's Chino Valley well fields.
ADWR recently released a draft of its 4th Management Plan for the 385-square-mile Prescott AMA that includes Prescott, Prescott Valley and Chino Valley. It's supposed to guide the region toward sustainable groundwater use during the years 2010-2020 but likely won't be implemented until 2016 or 2017 because of staff shortages, ADWR director of AMAs Jeff Tannler said last year.
A table in the new draft plan shows annual Prescott AMA groundwater depletions during 21 of the last 28 years, with depletions increasing in recent years.
State officials said the AMA cannot reach safe yield without importing water. Prescott and PV have long-standing plans to import water from the neighboring Big Chino Aquifer, but that has caused concerns from others because scientists say the Big Chino provides at least 80 percent of the baseflow for the Upper Verde River.
Coincidentally, ADWR has set a goal of "safe yield," or an end to the Prescott AMA groundwater depletions, by 2025 - the same year ADWR expects the Del Rio Springs to dry up.