PHOENIX — Amid a megadrought depleting groundwater across the West, a newly released report from Arizona signals difficulty ahead for developers wishing to build hundreds of thousands of homes in the desert west of Phoenix.
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs released the modeling report Monday, and it shows that plans to add homes for more than 800,000 people west of the White Tank Mountains will require other water sources if they are to go forward. The report also signals the start of Hobbs’ effort to shore up groundwater management statewide.
“We must talk about the challenge of our time: Arizona’s decades-long drought, over-usage of the Colorado River, and the combined ramifications on our water supply, our forests, and our communities,” Hobbs said.
The West’s megadrought which worsened in 2021 made it the driest in at least 1,200 years, according to a study from the journal Nature Climate Change.
As a result of the expanding drought, western states are struggling with a water shortage due to lakes and rivers drying up in addition to communities pumping more groundwater and depleting aquifers at an alarming rate.
The groundwater crisis has impacted agriculture and rural communities as many are losing access to groundwater. Now, new homes will need new water sources, according to Arizona’s modeling report.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources had developed the model showing inadequate water for much of the development envisioned as far-west suburbs, but had not released it during then-Gov. Doug Ducey’s term.
In the case of development on the western edges of the urban area, the information Hobbs’ team released makes clear that developers who own desert expanses largely in Buckeye’s, the westernmost suburb in Phoenix, planning area will need more water to make their visions come true.
The report, called the Lower Hassayampa Sub-basin Groundwater Model, finds that projected growth would more than double groundwater use and put it out of balance by 15%. The state’s groundwater law requires developers in the Phoenix area to get state certificates of assured water supplies extending out 100 years before they can build.
Arizona Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke on Monday said he would not issue new certificates for the area unless developers find secure water sources in addition to the local groundwater.
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New homes will need new water sources
Some of the Buckeye subdivisions in the area already have certifications for homes that Buschatzke estimated to number in the thousands, and that will combine to add 50,000 acre-feet of demand in a basin that already uses 123,000 acre-feet. The aquifer apparently can bear that amount, but not the 100,000 acre-foot demand that department analysts have attributed to hundreds of thousands more homes envisioned for the zone.
The Howard Hughes Corp. is a major player in the area, with 100,000 homes planned on 37,000 acres.
The question of where developers might get the water to support such vast housing tracts has previously presented a mystery, with some developers merely saying they were confident in their prospects. The report the state released this week provides an initial answer: They won’t be finding that water solely in the aquifer below the land. Instead, they will have to find new ways of importing and possibly recycling water if they want to build out the property.
“Some of the big plans that are out there for master-planned communities will need to find other water supplies or other solutions,” Buschatzke said.
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For now, the groundwater deficiency could stall much building on the Valley’s far west side. But it also could foreshadow a push for big new infrastructure projects, such as an ocean desalination plant and pipeline proposal that a state water finance board has agreed to evaluate. That proposal, led by an Israeli company that has built or operated desalination plants around the world, would pipe water north from Mexico and through Buckeye on its way to the Central Arizona Project canal.
Other options include moving water from other areas, such as the Harquahala Valley to the west, or recycling wastewater, Buschatzke said. Those options could take years, though.
Buckeye officials sent a statement to The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, saying they need time to study the report but will work to ensure sustainable growth: “Buckeye is committed to responsible and sustainable growth and working to ensure we have adequate water for new businesses and residents, while protecting our existing customers.”
Researcher says finding water won’t be cheap or easy
Arizona State University water researcher Kathleen Ferris had called for the groundwater report’s release, and on Tuesday said she was delighted that Hobbs made it public.
Ferris, with the school’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, is a past director of the Department of Water Resources and helped craft the 1980 groundwater law that requires a 100-year supply for new development.
“It’s a hugely important step,” Ferris said. “As the governor said, It’s about transparency and knowledge. We should not be allowing this growth to occur when the water isn’t there.”
Ferris said she counts herself among skeptics who don’t believe a desalination plant will come online quickly. The Colorado River’s drought-reduced storage means it can’t provide excess water to soon fill the gap in groundwater supplies, either. It doesn’t mean Buckeye can’t grow, she said, but finding the water to do so won’t be cheap or easy.
She cautioned that other cities with stronger water portfolios are also on the lookout to snap up new water to secure their own futures.
Beyond Buckeye, Ferris said, Hobbs is right to push for better groundwater management statewide. The 1980 law applied mostly to urban areas, leaving vast areas of rural Arizona unregulated.
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The whole state doesn’t necessarily need the same 100-year-supply rule, Ferris said, but groundwater users everywhere should be responsible for tracking and reporting what they use.
Any effort to address rural groundwater with statewide regulations is bound to face resistance in the Arizona Legislature, where lawmakers for several years have declined to extend state regulations.
Whatever happens, Ferris said, the state is due for an honest conversation about where and by how much it can grow. She hopes the governor’s announcement is the start of such a reckoning. “We just can’t have subdivisions approved (solely) on groundwater,” she said.
Contributing: The Associated Press