Sulphur Springs Valley was once beautiful. Now we are living in the wreckage, and most of us have forgotten how things got this bad.
Flowing and standing water was once common in the Valley. In 1872, a survey found water just ten feet down almost everywhere.
The Valley began to lose its water when the mining boom began, over 125 years ago. Valley surface water was pumped up to the mines in the mountains. This didn’t change the Valley much.
It was a cattle boom that ruined the Valley. In Wyatt Earp’s time, cattle rustled from Mexico were “parked” in the Valley, near present-day McNeal, because this was such good grazing country. Eventually, real ranchers noticed how good the country was, and by the 1890s, Cochise County was actually called America’s Cattle Capitol. 100,000 cattle lived off the grain that covered the Valley. We didn’t know yet that droughts always come to the Valley. A drought came in the early 1890s. By 1895, only 25,000 cattle survived. The rest starved to death, after eating the Valley’s vegetation right down to the dirt, creating the desert we live in today.
Our underground water survived, but pumping it up on a large scale wasn’t practical. Windmills weren’t reliable enough, and home-generated electricity was too expensive. Then, in 1944, the federal program of rural electrification came to Cochise County, and made it cheap to get underground water. From only 12 square miles of irrigated land in 1944, the County had 40 square miles by 1950, and 312 square miles by 1975. Then came the oil crisis, just as severe as the drought of 1895. About 2/3 of the irrigated land in the County went bust, because electricity became so expensive that farmers couldn’t pay their bills.
Since 1975, the water table hasn’t come back much. It’s typically 300 feet down. In places, the surface of the land has sunk 6 feet or more. New cracks in the earth show us that the water below is dropping. Abandoned farms keep blowing away in dust storms.
In short, the Sulphur Springs Valley that we live in is a series of ruins: mine tailings, ghost towns, a desert, sinkholes, dust storms, cracked earth, and scarce water. We created this by going to extremes whenever a new way to make money came along. The opportunists made money and got out, leaving the rest of us to survive in the ruins.
Today’s money crop is housing. Real estate developers always want just one more crop, one more housing tract. They say what the old miners, cattlemen and farmers said in their day: we’ll never run out of resources.
Government wants to appear in control — there is nothing “public servants” loathe so much as anything they don’t control — and developers want us to think that with careful control of water, we can keep adding housing. But even putting 1 house on 4 acres, in 1/3 of the area of the County, would be 750,000 people — 6 times the County’s population now. Why let developers put in 10 to 20 times that population density? The water is not here.

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Mike Jackson, (520) 642-1760, PO Box 2, McNeal AZ 85617,

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