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Credit: Central Arizona Groundwater Replacement District

Policy & Politics

Arizona Limits New Construction Around Phoenix Due To Lack Of Groundwater

Maricopa County, Arizona, is one of the fastest growing areas of the United States, but its growth is threatened by a lack of water.

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Queen Creek, Arizona, is a suburban community southeast of Phoenix. It currently is home to 75,000 inhabitants, but has plans to add another 100,000 residents in the years to come. The Phoenix area has been one of the fastest growing areas of the United States for decades, as baby boomers retired to the area in search of a warm climate that would give their weary joints a respite from shoveling snow in the cold.

But Queen Creek has a problem. There simply isn’t enough water available to wash the dishes and flush the toilets and fill the pools of all the new homes that will be needed to house more people. The city has two potential sources of water — surface water from lakes and rivers, and groundwater. Those lakes and rivers, in turn, are fed by water from the Colorado River, which is also under stress today.

Queen Creek is located in Maricopa County, which gets about half its water from groundwater. The problem is, groundwater may take a thousand years or more to accumulate. In less than half a century, the unrelenting pace of growth in the county has seriously depleted the available supply. The county uses 2.2 billion gallons of water a day. That’s more than twice as much as New York City, which has twice as many people.

Water & Politics in Arizona

The issue was swept under the rug by former governor Doug Ducey. Now newly elected Governor Katie Hobbs is left to clean up the mess left by her predecessor. Last week, her administration announced there would be no more building permits for single family homes that rely on wells for their water needs issued in Maricopa County. Existing permits will be allowed to proceed to completion, however. The ban also does not apply to commercial developments, which usually do not rely on wells for their water supply.

The decision is based on an analysis of expected groundwater levels over the next 100 years completed by state officials — information that Ducey chose to ignore, as is the norm in conservative circles in America today. Sweep it under the rug, hide it in your pantry with your cupcakes, but never, ever admit there is a problem that might inhibit the constant growth of the economy, come hell or high water. Or lack of high water, as the case may be.

4.86 Million Acre-Feet Shortfall

The state analysis projects a water shortfall of 4.86 million acre-feet in the Phoenix area over the next 100 years. One acre-foot equal 325,851 gallons. You do the math. Our Radio Shack calculators don’t go that high. The shortfall is why the state will deny new certificates of Assured Water Supply, which are required in order to obtain a building permit for new home construction.

On Thursday, Governor Hobbs said Arizona was not immediately running dry and that new construction would continue in major cities like Phoenix. “We’re going to manage this situation,” she said at a news conference. “We are not out of water and we will not be running out of water. It is also incredibly important to note that the model relates only to groundwater and does not concern surface water supplies which are a significant source of renewable water for our state. What the model ultimately shows is that our water future is secure.”

The End Of Sprawl

Phoenix is the poster child for urban sprawl. People who fly in to Sky Harbor airport see the developments around Phoenix spreading as far as the eye can see. Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, told the New York Times, “We see the horizon for the end of sprawl. There is still capacity for development within designated cities.”

The new restrictions will be felt most immediately in small towns and in the unincorporated swaths of desert along the fringes of the Phoenix metro area. That’s where most less expensive homes tend to get built. “Those have been hot spots for growth,” she said.

The result is that Arizona’s water supply is being squeezed from both directions: disappearing ground water, as well as the shrinking Colorado River. The water shortage could be more severe than the state’s analysis shows because it assumes Arizona’s supply from the Colorado River will remain constant over the next 100 years. In fact, a recent agreement with the federal government will reduce the amount of water the state is allowed to take from the Colorado.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources said developers will need to find other sources of water in order to build new homes. Those sources could include officially designated entities that have excess water to sell (there’s damn few of those), or farmers or Native American tribes with water rights. That seems unlikely, as all of them are facing water shortages as a result of an ongoing drought in the area that is now more than 2 decades old. Recycled water or desalinated brackish groundwater could also increase future supplies.

Arizona Developers Are Upset

Predictably, the people who build homes in the Phoenix area are upset by this news. Spencer Kamps, vice president of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, told The Guardian, “We have struggled with the fact that we’re the only one that ultimately is stopped when groundwater issues arise.” Kamps pointed out that new homes have doubled their water efficiency in recent years and already restock the groundwater they consume through the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District.

Some developers note that construction will not stop anytime soon. The Arizona water agency has given permission for construction on about 80,000 housing lots that have yet to be built, a state official said.

Even as the state takes steps to try to slow depletion, the Kyl Center has warned that Arizona is still pumping too much groundwater. New industrial projects are sucking up groundwater without restrictions, and demand for water is outpacing any gains from conservation efforts, the center found in a 2021 report. Some of those industrial projects include things CleanTechnica readers support, like battery recycling.

Cynthia Campbell, a water resources management adviser for the city of Phoenix, told The Guardian that many outlying developments and towns in Maricopa County have been able to build by enrolling in the CAGRD program, which allows subdivisions to take groundwater from one place if they pump it back into the ground elsewhere.

She said the idea that you could balance water supplies like that had always been a “legal fiction,” one that now appears to be unraveling as the state takes a harder look at where the groundwater supplies are coming up short.

“This is the hydrologic disconnect coming home to roost,” Campbell said. In outlying areas, “a lot of the developers are really worried, they’re freaked. The reality is, it all came back to catch us.”

The Takeaway

“Out of sight, out of mind” describes a common human characteristic. If we can’t see groundwater levels falling, why worry about it? If we can’t see ocean currents slowing, why worry about them? If the forest fires in Nova Scotia — the worst since European settlers arrived over 500 years ago — aren’t threatening my house, who cares?

One of the principal drivers of the growth in America is tax revenue, something cities and towns always want more of. The way to get it is to take fallow land that generates little revenue and turn it into strip malls, high rises, and single family homes that provide a bonanza of new money for the local treasury.

Oceanfront communities strongly support building next to the sea because those homes pay the highest taxes. Bedroom communities like Queen Creek encourage development because lightly taxed desert will magically turn into tax revenue once homes get built on it.

What we are seeing in Arizona is the beginnings of degrowth, and it clearly terrifies everyone from the governor on down. Managing the approaching climate crisis will be bad news for politicians who are the bearers of bad news. Such people rarely get elected, which means those with the political will to take meaningful action are kept out of the political conversation while those who want to gloss over it ascend to leadership positions.

The human body can survive for 30 days without food, but only 3 days without water. This is not likely to end well.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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