PHOENIX—A top water expert at Arizona State University began the year with a demand in a newspaper Op-Ed column directed at incoming Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs: Immediately release a state report on groundwater in Buckeye, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.
Buckeye, about 35 miles west of Phoenix, currently has a little over 100,000 residents, with communities planned that would nearly triple that population in the coming decades.
“Nearly all this development would be located on pristine desert land without a history of water use,” the water expert, Kathleen Ferris, wrote in The Arizona Republic. “And if developers get their way and are allowed to move forward, the massive new growth they’re proposing would seriously threaten the entire region’s groundwater.”
Ferris, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy and the former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, which prepared the report, got her wish. Last week, Hobbs released the department’s analysis of the Lower Hassayampa sub-basin, which showed that without new sources of water, the region cannot add more development. The governor also made clear in her State of the State address that water conservation would be a top priority for her administration.
The same day she released the report, Hobbs, a Democrat, signed an executive order establishing the Governor’s Water Policy Council, which will help to “modernize and expand” a 1980 regulatory law known as the Arizona Groundwater Management Act.
Her actions came as Arizona deals with an avalanche of water issues: drought, cutbacks in water allotments from the Colorado River, unregulated groundwater use in rural areas, increased media attention and a cutoff of city water to a community living on unincorporated county land north of Scottsdale.
“I’m really encouraged by the speech that Gov. Hobbs gave and her willingness to really tackle this problem and to really put resources toward resolving that because if you don’t have water, what else can you have?” Ferris said in an interview. “It’s really, really important. And for decades now, our state seems to have kind of turned a blind eye to a lot of these problems.”
Water policy experts hope that Hobbs’ announcements signal a change in how Arizona regulates its water usage, given the crisis on the Colorado River, the state’s depleted groundwater resources and the unending challenge of climate change. The next question, they say, is how developers will find the water to build the thousands of new homes already planned and how state laws governing the use of groundwater will be strengthened.
“Maybe growing in virgin desert in Buckeye isn’t in our future,” said Haley Paul, Arizona policy director for the National Audubon Society.
For years, said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, it has been an “open secret” that the Hassayampa subbasin report would probably halt, at least for now, much of the future growth planned in Buckeye. The state report analyzed the area’s water needs from 2017 to 2116.
Arizona law requires developers in the most populated parts of the state to obtain a certificate from the Department of Water Resources assuring adequate water supply for 100 years. According to the report, the demand for groundwater will more than double over the current century, resulting in an unmet demand of 4.4 million acre-feet of water. Unless new sources of water can be found, the department won’t be issuing any new certificates along the Lower Hassayampa.
What the solution will be is anyone’s guess. What is clear, Ferris said, is that not every part of the state has the same opportunities to grow.
Ferris has been concerned about development and groundwater use in West Valley in the Phoenix metro area for a long time. Any new development would have to rely on groundwater because there is no surface water in the area. Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler and Mesa, all to the east of Buckeye, which itself relies almost exclusively on groundwater, retain strong water rights through the Salt River Project, a state utility that provides water from the Salt and Verde Rivers and from 250 groundwater wells. “It’s a much more reliable and renewable water supply,” Ferris said.
Some options do exist for continued development in Buckeye, however, said Porter, the Kyl Center director.
One would be for the Colorado River Indian Tribes, commonly referred to as CRIT, to modify their water allotment from the Colorado River. Recent legislation signed by President Biden gives CRIT the ability to lease their Colorado River allotment or exchange it with others. Another possibility would be to pull water from the Harquahala Basin, which is allowed under Arizona law, and develop the infrastructure to supply groundwater in the Buckeye area, Porter said.
Both options would cost millions but are financially and legally feasible, she added.
“I don’t think anyone who’s paying attention to water resources in the far West Valley is surprised” by the state water department’s conclusion, Porter said. “Many may be unhappy and dismayed, but this report has been in the works.”
Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center, said that for the past 20 years, the water community in the state has tended to look at the problem through one main lens: “Where’s the next bucket of water?”
Going forward, Megdal said, municipalities need to think critically from the onset about how a community can be built to require less water demand—and how they use existing supplies. “We have to stop thinking that it’s only about this source of water that we have to worry about,” she said. “It’s about water in general and how we use it and use it efficiently and wisely.”
Megdal said that if a golf course is using 100 percent reclaimed water, for example, it is unaffected by the conservation requirements of Arizona law. “Reclaimed water is really important to new development, but maybe in a different way than it has been,” she said. Rather than a golf course, “maybe it’s for recharging aquifers so that that recovered water can be used for community use in the house and so forth.”
Reclaimed water is typically water that has already been used, like a city’s wastewater, and then treated to be used once more.
The city of Buckeye says its officials are working with water experts to review the Lower Hassayampa sub-basin report, which runs to nearly 300 pages, and related files and will provide a response on what it means for the city once that review is complete. “Buckeye’s water future is secure—it is not in danger, and it currently has the resources to sustain our existing customers and projected growth that already have certificates of assured water supply,” the city said in a press release.
If Buckeye is to continue to grow, more water will be needed. Teravalis, one of the major development projects in the area, is expected to add 100,000 homes and 300,000 new residents across 37,000 acres of land. The project has already broken ground, but only a small percentage of the homes have had their water supply certified by the state.
“We support the governor’s initiative to proactively manage Arizona’s future water supply and will continue to be a collaborative partner to help ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for the West Valley, Arizona and the greater Southwest,” said Heath Melton, president of the Phoenix Region for the Howard Hughes Corporation, in an emailed statement.
But even for their existing residents, not every community within Maricopa County can offer a secure water future.
Outside Scottsdale City Hall one afternoon last week, around 60 residents of the Rio Verde Foothills protested a decision by the city to cut off access to its water supply at the start of 2023. The Rio Verde Foothills is on unincorporated land and governed by Maricopa County. That means residents have had two main options to get water: dig a well or have water hauled to their homes, typically from Scottsdale’s water supply, that they paid for.
The city had allowed water haulers to use hydrant meters to provide water to Rio Verde residents. “Through this process, Scottsdale recognized that the Rio Verde Foothills community was increasingly reliant on water being hauled from Scottsdale and it became evident, especially as the community continues to expand, that this was not a sustainable situation,” according to a memo on the situation released by the city.
Dave Courtney has lived in the Rio Verde Foothills since 2003. His family’s initial plan was to build a well. He had estimated it would cost at least $40,000—but then life happened. He had two children who would attend college, and he felt that the money could be better spent elsewhere as he continued to haul water himself from Scottsdale. Now that he is no longer able to get water from Scottsdale, he has to either drive further to buy water from another city or pay a company to haul water to his home. Either way, the water is more expensive, about triple of what he would usually pay for Scottsdale water.
“I understand the drought situation, but you know, we’ve got a plan in place,” said Courtney, who would prefer that Scottsdale continue providing water for another couple of years while other solutions are developed. “They just need to give us a little bit more time. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
One potential solution would involve the private water utility EPCOR, which has submitted an application to provide residents with a standpipe service, a series of pipes connected to a water supply, such as ones used for firefighting. But the plan would need approval from the state’s regulatory body for utilities, the Arizona Corporation Commission, and EPCOR is still working on where the water would come from. The company projects that it would take at least two or three years to establish service and cost $6 million at minimum just to construct the standpipe system
Another resident, Patrick Kruse, has lived in the Rio Verde Foothills since 2006. Like Courtney, he personally hauled the water from Scottsdale to his home, but until last August he never realized that the water could be cut off. “This is the government failing the community,” he said.
Rio Verde Foothills residents filed a lawsuit last week to require the city of Scottsdale to continue to provide water service. Their claim is based on an Arizona statute that says that once a municipality begins a utility service to a community, it can’t stop.
The city declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, but Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega told CBS News the residents “should manage their own destiny with their own water. Right now they are trucking water. Burning diesel to supply themselves. Which we do not support.”
When told that residents would have to go even further to get water, thereby burning more diesel, Ortega responded, “That’s their problem.”
The mayor’s comments have angered Rio Verde residents and drawn the attention of state Rep. David Cook, a Republican from Globe. He said Ortega had shown “no compassion.” “We don’t treat people like that in Arizona,” Cook said.
Last week Cook introduced a bill co-sponsored with the speaker of the state House that would force any city that cuts off water to customers outside its service area to apply the same cuts to the mayor and city council. The city would also be held liable for damage from any fires, health problems for children and attorneys fees related to the cutoff.
“There are workable solutions,” Cook said. But he adds: “The first thing that we need to do is to stop the building permits out there.”
To Arizona water experts, the situation in the Rio Verde Foothills illustrates why the state’s groundwater laws need to be modernized.
The cutoff and ensuing misery, they say, is largely a consequence of a loophole in the Arizona Groundwater Management Act. When passed in 1980, the act was aimed at managing groundwater resources in the fastest-growing regions of the state. Under the law, any subdivision—meaning six or more parcels—in an Active Management Area needs to have the water department certify that it has enough water for 100 years.
But in the foothills, housing developers built hundreds of homes on five parcels or less, meaning that the water supply did not need to be certified for many of those parcels. The situation there is “an exception,” Porter said. “That’s an outlier.”
Porter said that supplying water to the Rio Verde Foothills is like “a hemorrhage for Scottsdale.” The city relies heavily on the Colorado River. Its economy is based on high-water-use industries like golf courses, she added, and Scottsdale has made a huge investment in reclaiming water as part of its management plan. Rio Verde residents rely on septic tanks, she said, and that water cannot be reclaimed.
Ferris assigns most of the blame to Maricopa County, not the city, for allowing these types of development to happen. “The city of Scottsdale did what it could for a long period of time,” she said, “but now we’re facing horrible challenges on the Colorado River.”
It’s clear, however, that “we’ve got to change the laws so that this doesn’t happen again,” Ferris said.
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Several experts said they found the governor’s focus on updating current groundwater law to be exciting and predicted that the council she has formed to accomplish that will help provide potential solutions. The Groundwater Management Act has “good bones, but we know that our situation is changing,” said Paul of the Audubon Society.
Aside from the sharp decline in Colorado River water and the shortage that prevents the issuing of new housing permits, Paul points out that more than 80 percent of the state was left out in the original Groundwater Management Act. “Basically rural Arizona has no tools beyond a couple limited ones to manage groundwater,” she said.
Megdal, who will likely serve on the Governor’s Water Policy Council because the center she directs has been chosen to potentially have a representative on the council, argues that policymakers, experts and community members must work together to find solutions.
“This is hard,” she said. “This is going to be difficult. We don’t at this point know the answers, but it’s people’s jobs to try to figure out the path forward.”