Arizona’s Future Water Shock ~ Circle of Blue

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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. 

Tempe cleaned up and dammed a dry section of the Salt River, filled it with reclaimed water, and in 1999 opened 2 mile-long Town Lake, a signature recreational asset at the heart of the city. Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue

ANOTHER VIEW

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.

Newly planted pecan trees that are irrigated by finite and shrinking reserves of groundwater in Cochise County in southeast Arizona. Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue

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 water shutoff order from Scottsdale hasn’t slowed the construction of million-dollar homes in Rio Verde Foothills, one of the Phoenix metropolitan region’s choice places to live. Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue

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.

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.”

In the desert west of Phoenix, the city of Buckeye is growing faster than almost any other city in the U.S. City leaders anticipate housing 1 million 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. Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue

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