Arizona’s Future Water Shock
Smaller cities. Soaring water prices. Scorched desert towns.
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue – March 28, 2022
The Biggest Dry: Arizona, third of three reports. Read the rest of the series here.
PHOENIX – On a Saturday morning in late January a chill wind kicks up dust on the high desert ridge north of Scottsdale where wood skeletons of new homes appear above the mesquite and cactus of the Rio Verde Foothills. Along Rio Verde Drive a white tent marks the corner where Karen Nabity and Jennifer Simpson, longtime Foothills residents, collect petition signatures to head off a water emergency bearing down on them and hundreds of their neighbors.
Last year Scottsdale authorities, concerned about the effects of the megadrought and the August 2021 federal Colorado River water shortage declaration, decided to protect the city’s 241,000 residents. They issued an order under Scottsdale’s drought management plan that will bar tanker trucks from using a city-owned depot to haul water to homes outside the city limit. Rio Verde Foothills, where Nabity, Simpson and at least 500 other homeowners rely on the depot for their drinking water, falls into that category. The city set a December 31, 2022 deadline for the water shut off.
Scottsdale’s water shut down and Rio Verde Foothills’ scramble for a new supply is unique to Arizona at the moment. However, the significance of the community’s encounter with the real-life menace of drought and shrinking groundwater reserves is more than a one-off water shortage event. It is a flashing red warning that Arizona’s growth-centered economic determinism is crashing hard into severe ecological constraints.
What’s happening in the million-dollar homes of Rio Verde Foothills, one of the Phoenix metropolitan region’s choice places to live, is a future shock “buyer beware” scenario certain to be replicated over the next several decades in many other Arizona communities contending with urgent water constraints.
About 50 miles south, another scenario of 21st century Arizona is taking shape. The nearly 23,000-member Gila River Indian Community is modernizing: adding to its group of casinos, preparing to expand its irrigated farm acres, and elevating its influence in Arizona’s politics and economy. It’s doing so by virtue of one of the most secure and abundant water supplies in Arizona and the entire Southwest.
Following decades of brutal discrimination and abuse by white settlers and state authorities during which the two Gila River tribes’ rights to their historic water supply were not honored, Congress approved an agreement between the United States and the State of Arizona that essentially guarantees tribal access to 653,500 acre-feet of water per year. That amounts to 213 billion gallons, or three times more water than industry and the 1 million residents of the Tucson metropolitan region use in a year. Almost half, or 311,000 acre-feet, comes from the Colorado River. Much of the rest comes from groundwater and reservoir storage on the Salt, Verde, and Gila rivers east of Phoenix.
Tribal leaders did not respond to requests for interviews. But from previous statements by tribal leaders and in interviews with state water authorities, it is clear that the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, is using its abundant water to build a new age of wealth and influence on the 372,000-acre reservation south of Phoenix. GRIC is constructing a federally-financed irrigation network to increase farming operations to 75,000 ancestral acres from the current 35,000. It negotiated lucrative agreements to lease water to Phoenix, Chandler, and other communities. It is also marketing water that it stores in aquifers to willing suburbs and subdivision builders interested in long-term leases.
Since 2016, GRIC has played a central role in storing over 370,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, plus 130,000 more acre-feet this year to keep lake levels high enough to prevent a water shortage declaration more dire than the one the federal government issued last August. GRIC received $274 per acre-foot from the state and federal governments. In short, ample and secure water supply is the basis of the community’s plan to rebuild the vitality of its 8,000 year-old desert civilization that was ruined in the 20th century.
Arizona’s Future Water Shock
The water-abundant and thriving Gila River Indian Community amounts to one bookend scenario of Arizona’s 21st century condition. The other bookend is the arid Rio Verde Foothills, where government decisions and meteorological disruptions trap residents in a water-related crisis that heat and drought aggravated, and state law did not anticipate.
In 1980, Arizona enacted an innovative groundwater management program intended to ensure adequate reserves of water for rapid home development and expansive population growth by designating four regions from Prescott to Tucson as Active Management Areas. (Santa Cruz, the fifth AMA, was carved out from the Tucson AMA in 1994.) The program included two important exemptions, however: its provisions did not apply to groundwater withdrawals outside of the AMAs. And within the AMA boundaries, owners of private wells that pumped less than 35 gallons per minute — in other words, many of the wells drilled for the state’s exploding residential real estate markets — did not come under state oversight.
In 1995, the law set in place a consumer protection measure to require developers building subdivisions in AMAs with six or more homes to assure buyers that their houses had a 100-year supply of water. But the requirement did not apply for residential construction projects with less than six homes. Builders constructing individual homes, or clusters of five homes or less in an AMA, avoided the 100-year water requirement. Outside the AMAs, groundwater safeguards did not apply, creating what amounted to a home construction free-for-all.
Little more than 40 years after the statute was enacted and less than 30 years after the 100-year assured water supply rules were adopted, the subdivision and private well waivers have resulted in Rio Verde’s emergency. They also influenced a boom in home construction that has caused — and continues to cause — thousands of wells to fail inside and outside of AMAs. It is clearer by the day that, without significant strengthening, the state’s water management program is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The emergence of serious instances of water shortage from Kingman in the north, to the Chino Valley north of Prescott, to Cochise County in Arizona’s southeast has prompted civic campaigns for reform. They have yet to attract sufficient legislative support.
That seems certain to change. And soon, because of climate change.
This year alone, the latest scientifically respected studies reveal a number of disconcerting findings. The megadrought that has Arizona in its tightening grip is the worst in 1200 years. Climate change is responsible for at least 40 percent of the decline in Colorado River water supplies. And the Southwest, like other desert regions, is getting steadily hotter, drier, and more dangerous. Though future weather conditions are always difficult to accurately predict, a worst-case scenario for Arizona looks like this: Population growth stops. Residents start to migrate in droves away from the stifling hot and dry state. Home values collapse. The state enters an era of relentless decline. By 2060, according to several published projections, extreme heat and water scarcity could make Phoenix one of the continent’s most uninhabitable places.
It’s not much of a reach to conclude that Arizona is at the intersection of two paths to the future. By mid-century it will be a model of desert dwelling resiliency. Or it will be a weakened civilization that is starting to waste away.
A Cogent Look at What to Expect
When asked what the future portends, none of the senior state water management authorities interviewed for this project delivered a firm projection. But in 2014, as the megadrought was exerting its unmistakable influence on water supplies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources prepared “Arizona’s Next Century,” a well-regarded “strategic vision” for future water supply.
The report’s authors projected colliding trend lines of rapid growth and declining water supply that plainly showed that the status quo will not hold in Arizona. According to the study’s findings:
— Over 3 million more people are expected to live in Arizona by 2035, or 40 percent more than the 7.1 million who reside there today. By 2060, Arizona could be home to an additional 6 million people.
— As a result of anticipated population growth, annual water demand in Arizona will increase 1.2 million to 1.6 million acre-feet, or 17 percent to 22 percent above 2022 demand.
— By 2060, the population in the seven states served by the Colorado River, which supplied almost 40 percent of Arizona’s water until this year, could increase to 76 million, nearly double the number today.
— Demand for Colorado River water from its seven basin states is anticipated to increase by mid-century to 18 million to 20 million acre-feet, a nearly 70 percent increase from now. But due to drought, climate change, and extreme heat, the water supply from the Colorado River will drop to roughly 9.4 million acre-feet, 25 percent lower than today.
Taken as a whole, the data mean that Arizona’s share of the Colorado River will likely shrink to less than half the current 2.8 million acre-feet allotment. Arizona will rely much more heavily on its finite groundwater reserves to support population growth, residential construction, and new business starts that state officials continue to encourage. And though Arizona has stored over 13 million acre-feet of water underground to supplement supply during years of water shortage, never since statehood in 1912 has Arizona encountered such a long and deep period of water scarcity that science predicts will grow steadily more severe.
It’s not at all difficult to project that “home buyer beware” warnings will be emailed, Tweeted, Instagrammed, Tiktoked, and taped to bulletin boards in many more communities than Rio Verde Foothills, Cochise County, north Chino Valley, Kingman, and Flagstaff, where water wells are failing.
Unless, said the authors of “Arizona’s Next Century,” the state’s Native American tribes make much more of their secure yearly right to 1.9 million acre-feet available for sale or lease. And unless Arizona’s elected officials, water authorities, and engineers develop and quickly execute an array of policy changes and infrastructure projects that converge over the next generation to head off calamity.
Those steps include amending existing water laws or enacting new laws to increase water efficiency and conservation, more stringently oversee groundwater use in and outside the Active Management Areas, and make it much easier to move available water around the state. Another idea, already in place in Las Vegas and Aurora, Col. is to ban grass and “non-functional turf” because half of U.S. urban water use goes to maintaining outdoor spaces. Austin, Tex. is developing systems within its own buildings to stop flushing potable water down the toilet. Instead, the city turns wastewater into greywater for various uses inside and outdoors, a practice that could reduce demand by another half.
The Next Century authors also called for somehow increasing the state’s water supply, as it did in the 20th century. A favored proposal is to construct desalination plants. “Arizona’s future success is tethered to how effectively we continue to manage our water resources and develop new water supplies and infrastructure,” they wrote. “Yet, our present success cannot sustain Arizona’s economic development forever.”
Acting on Future Scenario
The response by state leaders to the 2014 study has been methodical but by no means urgent. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey formed expert committees. Finding more water is their most popular option. Last year, Ducey convinced the Legislature to invest $160 million to investigate “augmentation,” which is Arizona’s term for developing new sources of water.
This year, the governor proposed establishing a new state agency, the Arizona Water Authority, to pursue new supplies and also asked the Legislature for $1 billion more, framing the request around the need to build a desalination plant, perhaps in Mexican waters, to produce 250,000 acre-feet a year.
Other ideas for securing Arizona’s water supply — regulating groundwater use in rural areas, metering private water wells, increasing use of recycled wastewater, restricting natural grass lawns, and imposing land use and urban design requirements to collect and store stormwater — haven’t reached nearly the same level of clarity and legislative purpose.
There’s a reason for that. Regulatory changes in water policy and practice are some of the steepest cliffs in Arizona’s political landscape. Any proposal judged by lawmakers to challenge property rights, raise costs, and impede growth is dead on arrival in the Legislature. Such proposals generate powerful winds of opposition in the executive offices of home builders, chambers of commerce, and every other economic development agency.
Arizona’s leaders and communities vow to continue growing. One prominent example is Buckeye, a suburb in the desert west of Phoenix that is one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Buckeye supplies over 11,000 acre-feet of water annually to its 97,000 residents and businesses, according to city figures.
Buckeye has enough land — and its current leaders sufficient moxie — to welcome 900,000 more residents by mid-century. At current rates of water consumption, Buckeye would need over 100,000 acre-feet annually, or 90,000 acre-feet more water than today.
Where will it come from? The city’s latest master water plan includes a lengthy list of potential water sources that are either unreliable (Colorado River), difficult to secure and transport, and certainly more expensive.
One idea, for example, is to help finance construction that will raise the height of 83-year-old Bartlett Dam, located east of Phoenix, to add 130,000 acre-feet to Bartlett Lake’s storage capacity. Whatever portion of the added supply that Buckeye gains would then be transported to the city over 100 miles through existing canals.
Another idea is to build a treatment plant to remove salts and impurities from a brackish aquifer within the city limits to use as water for landscaping, and maybe for drinking water.
Two more ideas involve purchasing groundwater from basins distant from Buckeye and transporting it by pipe and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) aqueduct to the city. Sounds simple in concept. In real-life application it’s not. The administrative challenges, water leasing contracts, and infrastructure requirements are costly and tricky.
One of those sources is the Harquahala groundwater basin beneath the desert further west of Buckeye, in Maricopa County. The state says it holds a total of 15.5 million acre-feet, though not nearly all of that can be recovered. If Buckeye relies on the Harquahala basin for most of the 90,000 acre-feet it will need, that represents perhaps a 50-year supply. Existing state law requires subdivision builders in Buckeye to assure they have a 100-year supply of water before they can begin construction. Harquahala, in effect, helps a bit in meeting that requirement. Buckeye needs more than Harquahala for its new sources of water.
Second, transporting groundwater out of the Harquahala basin to Buckeye involves 1) building a 30-mile long pipeline, 2) transporting water via the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and 3) paying a fortune for the water.
The first obstacle likely requires a formal environmental assessment, or a more complex environmental impact statement required for state, and perhaps the federal government’s review and approval.
Transporting water in the CAP is similarly complex. It involves review and approval by the director of the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. secretary of the Interior. Following those approvals, Buckeye would need to negotiate and sign a wheeling contract approved by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the leadership board that oversees the CAP.
The third element, actually gaining access to Harquahala groundwater, significantly raises the cost of water in Buckeye. Buyers seeking a long-term lease for Harquahala water told Circle of Blue that the current price quote is a one-time fee of $7,000 to $10,000 an acre foot, or somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion.
When asked whether Buckeye will have sufficient supplies of water to meet the demand of 1 million residents, Annie DeChance, the city’s communications manager, did not hesitate. “Absolutely,” she replied. “We have the water we need. We are aware of the complexities and challenges.”
Rio Verde Scarcity
The majestic Four Peaks mountain range was painted in a luminous morning shade of purple the day Karen Nabity and Jennifer Simpson collected petition signatures in support of a plan to secure a permanent source of Rio Verde Foothills water. Nabity and Simpson had waded into the complexity of Arizona law and regulation, and the rugged terrain of politics, to find a solution. They are leading a local campaign to establish a domestic water improvement district, in effect a state-sanctioned community utility would have the authority to negotiate agreements to secure an alternative source of water.
It’s a big idea for a distinctive Arizona community. Beneath Rio Verde Foothills lie groundwater supplies that never were robust. Some of the community’s homes were built without wells and buyers knew they would always rely on trucked water. Most others had private wells that delivered sufficient water.
But as development occurred, competition from new homes put pressure on the aquifer. Private wells failed and more homes turned to water hauling. Then came the megadrought, which eliminated most of the natural aquifer recharge, and dried up hundreds more private wells.
At least a quarter of Rio Verde’s 2,100 homes, Nabity said, are supplied with water by tanker trucks filled at Scottsdale’s water fill station, about 10 miles away. It’s enough water in a water-scarce era for Scottsdale to pay attention — 38 million gallons or 117 acre-feet annually and increasing. City authorities last year told Rio Verde residents their access to the depot would stop at the end of this year.
Water shortage emergencies like the one occurring north of Phoenix were not supposed to happen in Arizona. The 1980 groundwater law, plus provisions put in place in 1995, required home builders to prove that a 100-year supply of water was available before construction could start. But the 1995 rules exempted construction projects with fewer than six homes, and the 1980 law exempted wells that pump less than 35 gallons per minute. Both decisions enabled builders and buyers to avoid regulatory constraints and accelerate development.
Homes and property in the community are now valued at $1.3 billion, according to Maricopa County records. Rio Verde residents are encountering a new truth about vulnerability that less fortunate people already knew: wealth and stature are no match for water scarcity.
Nabity and Simpson, real estate professionals, propose a difficult legal and logistical solution that also has encountered some local opposition. The proposed community water district, a unit of government enabled by state law, gives homeowners the legal authority to collaborate and secure a new source of water.
The steps to formally establish the district and then acquire the new source are intricate and formidable without a deadline. Nabity and Simpson formed a non-profit, RVF Water Resources, Inc., to raise money and collect signatures on the petition to meet the legal requirements for establishing the water district. If the district is approved members will pay $1,000 per home to become district members and get the project started.
In its most basic outline, the community needs Maricopa County to approve the water district’s formation. It hasn’t yet due to opposition from some Rio Verde homeowners. Following that step, the district’s leaders, among them Nabity and Simpson, need to find a source of water. They are talking with water developers in the Harquahala groundwater basin to buy land with water rights to 200 acre-feet annually. That would mean piping it under Interstate 10 and into the CAP for transport. Both steps require intensive federal review. The total cost of the water lease, legal counsel, engineering, construction, and transportation could well exceed $4 million, plus the monthly cost of administration and hauling water to their homes. The Rio Verde Foothills homeowners also need to build a new community water depot where trucks can fill their tanks. The earliest all of this could occur, Nabity says, is 2026.
So she and Simpson opened a second path to end the water emergency – negotiating one-year water leases for 170 acre-feet from the Gila River Indian Community or another tribe that already is delivering water to Phoenix-area communities through the CAP. The one-year lease of tribal water, plus transportation and treatment to drinking water standards will be roughly $250,000.
It’s a full-time job without pay. “Did we ever think we’d be leading this charge?” remarked Nabity. “Never. Not even close.”
One more significant impediment. In order to meet Scottsdale’s December 31 deadline, the Rio Verde Foothills residents have until June 30 to negotiate and sign separate contracts for water supply with a tribe, and with Scottsdale to receive and treat the new supply. If those steps are completed the city told Nabity it will suspend the December 31 shutoff deadline and allow tanker trucks to use the fill station.
“It’s such a critical time crunch. I can’t even tell you,” Nabity said.
What’s happening in the Rio Verde Foothills — the causes of the emergency, the arduous path to solutions — is a small act in the mammoth, momentous, water shortage epic unfolding in Arizona. The state’s powerful resolve to keep growing is confronting much more potent limits on its water supply, the essential resource for attracting and supporting a civilization that is now at the peak of its human appeal and economic influence.
Extreme heat and deeper drought are forcing a reckoning. Over the next generation governments, farms, residents, and businesses will have to adjust to the new conditions. The challenge is immense. The bar for measuring success is high and terrifically difficult, especially viewed in this era of disruption, diversion, and dissent.
What will Arizona be like in 2060?
A reasonable projection is a state of active farm regions — Yuma, Pinal County, and Native American reservations — that cultivate half the number of irrigated acres that they do now.
The Tucson and Phoenix metro areas are smaller in order to better balance demand and available water supply. Homeowners and small businesses pay more for water than they do for electricity, a factor in diminishing the region’s economic competitiveness and residential allure.
Native American tribes that hold 2 million acre-feet of secure water rights will have built impressive desert economies and elevated to the top tier of policy influence and economic wealth.
Beaten by heat and drought, Arizona’s rural regions are a scorched landscape of expanding desert and empty towns where farmers and residents once lived in more hospitable conditions.
This project was made possible by a fellowship awarded by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for The American West.
The Biggest Dry: Arizona
Read the first two reports
Circle of Blue’s senior editor and chief correspondent based in Traverse City, Michigan. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water in the era of climate change from six continents. Contact
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