A newly released state report on groundwater supplies under the desert west of Phoenix signals difficulty ahead for developers wishing to build hundreds of thousands of homes there.
It also signals the start of an effort by Arizona’s new governor to shore up groundwater management statewide.
Gov. Katie Hobbs released the modeling report Monday afternoon, 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 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. Hobbs mentioned it during her State of the State address, along with other initiatives, including a new council dedicated to updating the state’s 1980 groundwater protection act for a new era of scarcity.
Hobbs also announced a new Governor’s Office of Resiliency, coordinating agencies, tribal governments and experts in finding land, water and energy solutions for the state.
“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,” the governor said.
In the case of development on the western edges of the urban area, the information her team released makes clear that developers who own desert expanses largely in Buckeye’s planning area north of Interstate 10 and west and north of the White Tank Mountains 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.
New homes will need new water sources
Some of the Buckeye subdivisions in the area already have certifications for homes that Buschatzke estimated 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 in the Teravalis development, formerly called Douglas Ranch.
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.
Contacted on Tuesday, Howard Hughes Corp. did not respond to an interview request, but did provide a statement from Phoenix Region President Heath Melton: “We support the Governor’s initiative to proactively manage Arizona’s future water supply and will continue to be a collaborative partner with our elected officials, civic agencies, and community stakeholders to drive forward the most modern water management and conservation techniques and help ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for the West Valley, Arizona, and the greater Southwest.”
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 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.”
New growth:Where will water come from for the massive community planned for Buckeye?
Researcher: 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, too, 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. 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. That would help the state know when it must act to conserve stressed aquifers, as it did this winter by halting expansion of irrigated farming around Kingman.
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 to areas including Kingman. Voters in Cochise County approved a limited management area in November for one groundwater basin.
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.
One advocate for updating and strengthening groundwater protections around the state says she is encouraged that Hobbs has started her administration with moves to do just that.
"We are really encouraged and grateful that water is a top priority," said Haley Paul, an Audubon Society regional policy director who co-chairs the Water for Arizona coalition.
The Hassayampa groundwater report demonstrates that Arizona needs to do something different now that it can't rely on excess Colorado River water to backfill pumped groundwater, Paul said. Following a similar finding that has led groundwater depletion to limit Pinal County growth, she said, the report is "a reality check" on unlimited growth in the desert.
Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @brandonloomis.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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