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Arizona is limiting new construction in the Phoenix area, citing a shrinking water supply



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The state of Arizona has determined that there is insufficient groundwater for all future housing construction already approved in the Phoenix area, and will prevent developers from building some new subdivisions, a sign of a looming problem in the West and elsewhere where it is overused, Drought and climate change are straining water supplies.

State officials’ decision marks the beginning of the end for the explosive development that has made the Phoenix metropolitan area the fastest growing in the nation.

Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs, gets more than half of its water supply from groundwater; Most of the remainder comes from rivers and canals as well as recycled sewage. In practice, groundwater is a finite resource; Its renewal can take thousands of years or more.


Declaring groundwater shortages — what the state calls “unmet demand” for water over the next 100 years — means Arizona will no longer grant developers in areas of Maricopa County new permits to build homes that rely on wells for water.

Phoenix and nearby large cities, which must receive separate permission from state officials for their development plans every 10 to 15 years, will also be denied approval for any homes that rely on groundwater beyond what the state has already allowed.

The decision means that cities and developers must look for alternative sources of water to support future development — for example, by trying to buy access to river water from farmers or Native American tribes, many of whom face shortages of their own. This rush to buy water is likely to roil the Arizona real estate market, making homes more affordable and threatening the relatively low housing costs that have made the area a magnet for people from all over the country.

“We see a horizon for the end of the sprawl,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kiel Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

The state says it will not revoke permits already issued and instead rely on water conservation measures and alternative sources of water production for approved projects.


Ms. Porter said groundwater shortages likely won’t derail planned growth in the short term in major cities such as Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa.

“There is still capacity for development within the designated cities,” Ms. Porter said, referring to cities whose growth plans have already been approved by state water officials. Those cities will not be able to get approval to build anything beyond that amount.

The new constraints will be felt most acutely in the small towns and unincorporated stretches of desert along the fringes of the Phoenix metro area — where most low-cost homes tend to be built. “Those were hot spots for growth,” Ms. Porter said.

The ad is the latest example of how climate change is reshaping the American Southwest. A historic 23-year drought and rising temperatures have lowered the level of the Colorado River, threatening the 40 million Americans in Arizona and six other states that depend on it — including residents of Phoenix, which gets its water from Colorado by canal.

Rising temperatures have increased the rate of evaporation from the river, even as crops require more water to survive these higher temperatures. The water Arizona receives from the Colorado River has already been significantly cut off by a voluntary agreement among the seven states. Last month, Arizona He agreed to conservation measures That would reduce supply.


The result is that Arizona’s water supply is under pressure from both directions – the water table is disappearing as well as the Colorado River is shrinking.

And the water shortage may be more severe than the state’s analysis shows because it assumes that Arizona’s supply of Colorado will remain constant over the next 100 years—which is uncertain.

Arizona’s water problems are starting to seep through state politics. In January, the new governor, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, pledged The first headline To tighten controls on the use of groundwater across the state.

As a sign of this commitment, Mrs. Hobbs A report was issued Which she said was suppressed by the previous Republican administration. It showed that an area west of Phoenix, called the Hassayamba Sub-Basin, did not have enough water for new wells. As a result, the Arizona Department of Water Resources said it will no longer issue new permits in that area for homes that rely on groundwater.

But Hassayamba is just one of several sub-basins that make up the larger aquifer basin beneath Greater Phoenix. The state’s announcement Thursday essentially extends the discovery through the Phoenix area.


Queen Creek is one of the places likely to feel the impact of the new restrictions.

When Arizona created its own groundwater bases more than 40 years ago, Queen Creek was still mostly peach and citrus orchards and vast farmland. Today, it is one of the fast-growing places in Arizona, where families go fishing in an “oasis” lake fed by recycled sewage. The city’s population of 75,000 is expected to grow to 175,000 by the time it is built decades from now.

But to do any of that, the city needs to find more water.

“We’re looking at 30,000 acre feet” — or about 9.8 billion gallons, said Paul Gardner, Queen Creek facilities manager.

With not enough groundwater to supply its needs for future growth, Queen Creek is looking for water anywhere it can — exploring proposals such as hauling it through a canal from western Arizona, and expanding the Lake Bartlett reservoir by joining other cities in the project to do construction. High Dam.


Unlike Phoenix, Queen Creek does not have what’s called an “appointment” from the state—essentially, a determination that the city has enough water to support new homes. Without this designation, every proposed development must prove to the state that it has a 100-year supply—and developers without that seal of approval would now have to find sources other than groundwater.

Even as the state takes steps to try to slow depletion, the Keel Center warns that Arizona is still pumping too much groundwater. In its 2021 report, the center found that new industrial projects are absorbing groundwater without restriction, and the demand for water outweighs any gains from conservation efforts.

Despite increasingly dire warnings from the state and water experts, some developers are confident construction won’t stop anytime soon. A state official said the Arizona water agency has granted building permission for about 80,000 lots that are yet to be built.

The city is largely dependent on river water, said Cynthia Campbell, a consultant with the Phoenix Water Resources Department, and groundwater is only about 2 percent of the water supply. But that could change dramatically if Arizona experiences drastic cuts in its Colorado River allotments, forcing the city to pump more groundwater.

Many outlying developments and towns in the Maricopa County stretch have been able to build by enrolling in a state-authorized program that allows subdivisions to absorb groundwater in one location if they pump it back into the ground elsewhere in the basin.


The idea of ​​balancing water supplies like that has always been a “legal fantasy” – Ms Campbell said – it now appears to be unraveling, as the state takes a more serious look at where groundwater supplies are falling short.

“This is the hydrological disconnect that comes home to take up residence,” said Ms. Campbell.

In remote areas, “a lot of developers are really anxious, they’re terrified,” Ms. Campbell said. “The truth is, everything has come back to catch up with us.”

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