Amid Continuing Drought, Arizona Is Coming up With New Sources of Water—if Cities Can Afford Them

BUCKEYE, Ariz.—Sixty miles west of Phoenix along the I-10 freeway to the California border lies what many Valley cities with limited water supplies and investment companies see as an answer to helping solve Arizona’s water woes: the Harquahala Basin.

It’s one of three basins in the state where groundwater can be pumped out and sent elsewhere—if cities are willing to pay the price. In January, Buckeye, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, with plans to triple its population in the coming decades, agreed to pay $80 million for one acre of land in the Harquahala Basin to acquire the water rights attached to it. Queen Creek, a fast-growing town east of Phoenix in Maricopa and Pinal counties, struck a similar deal with the same company last year for $30 million. 

Buckeye’s purchase, which allows it to pump 5,926 acre-feet of water per year for the next 100 years, came weeks after Arizona’s new governor released a report saying the basin the city sits on didn’t have enough water for all its planned growth. It would need to find another source before the Arizona Department of Water Resources would issue certificates allowing developers to continue building, the report said. The water from the Harquahala will supply about 20,000 homes planned for development in the city 35 miles west of Phoenix—just a small fraction of the more than 100,000 homes developers plan to build there—and its price doesn’t include what it will cost to treat the water to be drinkable or get it to homes in Buckeye. 

The city’s mayor, Eric Orsborn, isn’t worried about a shortage of water, or of the money to pay for it, slowing down what Buckeye has planned. “Growth pays for growth,” he said in an interview. Those new homes, he said, will lead to new residents and businesses that will help pay to find new sources of water. 

It’s an approach policymakers throughout Arizona are increasingly taking as the state looks to address declining water deliveries from the Colorado River and depleted groundwater supplies. Communities are preparing to spend billions of dollars to find new sources of water and build the infrastructure needed to deliver it to users. Some experts have cautioned that cities like Buckeye need to reevaluate plans for growth as Arizona continues to deal with the challenges of drought and climate change in the Southwest. But for now, some cities and the state have a different plan: spend what it takes to find the water to continue growing. 

“We’re going to have to find other water supplies in order to grow and that’s tricky because there’s only so much water, and new water supplies—especially imported water supplies—are very expensive,” said Kathleen Ferris, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. “Not only that, many areas do not have the infrastructure needed to get the water, even if you can bring it into the state.”

Arizona water laws limit how much groundwater can be pumped out of aquifers below the biggest and fastest-growing parts of the state, known as Active Management Areas, where developers must acquire a 100-year certification from the water department before being allowed to build—which is where Buckeye ran into trouble. 

An acre-foot of water can supply about 3.5 homes with water for a year, according to the state water department. Teravalis, one of the major development projects in Buckeye, is expected to add 100,000 homes and 300,000 new residents across 37,000 acres of land. Most of those homes haven’t yet had their water secured.

Recent storms have filled local reservoirs and caused flooding throughout the state, leading often dry rivers throughout the Phoenix area to once again flow with water. But this winter and spring weather won’t make up for the decreasing flows of the Colorado River—which supplies about 36 percent of Arizona’s water—after more than two decades of drought driven by climate change and the overallocation of the river’s resources. The wet year also won’t completely replenish the state’s groundwater supplies. That means for growth in the state to continue, Arizona needs to find new sources of water.

The connection between water usage and growth in Southwestern cities’ continued sprawl is coming under continued scrutiny, with some states proposing steps to reign in suburban-style development in favor of denser housing options with more public transportation. Such legislation in Arizona failed to pass in the state Senate. 

Still, Arizona residents and experts are concerned about the state’s “unrelenting sprawl” and its impact on dwindling water supplies. A recent paper looking at the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which bolsters underground water supplies throughout Active Management Areas, found some CAGRD experts were concerned with how the state’s groundwater laws and the district itself have created an unsustainable culture of growth in the state.

Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center and co-author of the study, said “discrete events”—like Queen Creek’s efforts to buy up farmland from investment companies to acquire the associated water rights—have slowly been building up over the years, signaling there was a potential market for new sources of water but legal and infrastructure obstacles stood in the way. 

With questions over the future of the Colorado River and groundwater resources, cities across the state are beginning to seriously look for new sources of water that can either further fuel growth or shore up traditional supplies. 

“All that means is that the demand for these new supplies is increasing,” Megdal said. “The willingness to pay is going to go up.”

The big question, she said, is if that means only the affluent can afford to pay for these new sources of water. 

State, Cities To Spend Millions on Potential New Water Sources

The state has already taken steps to help communities with their water supplies. 

Last year state lawmakers passed legislation to provide just over $1 billion to the Water Infrastructure Financing Authority, or WIFA, as part of a Long-Term Water Augmentation Fund to be used over the next three years, with 75 percent of the fund earmarked for imported water, such as from potential desalination projects. The authority also has millions in funding to help develop water infrastructure and to help cities conserve water.

“The water supply pressures in Arizona are changing and our willingness to pay for water I think is changing,” said WIFA Director Chuck Podolak.  

Even cities with stronger water portfolios than Buckeye are making new deals to ensure they have a steady supply. 

Phoenix itself is looking to build a multibillion-dollar water purification facility by 2030 that would recycle enough water for 200,000 households a year. The city is also looking to partner with nearby cities on the plant project to provide recycled water throughout the region and help cover its costs, the Arizona Republic reported

Across the Valley from Buckeye, Mesa, Arizona’s third-largest city, with around 500,000 residents, has a $185 million water pipeline in the works as part of an agreement with the Gila River Indian Community. That deal will bring an additional 12,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to the city and significantly decrease the price the city pays for water from the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile-long system that delivers Colorado River water to around 80 percent of the state’s population. 

Mesa City Council also approved spending $3.7 million to build two new wells to suck up more groundwater; the city plans to build 12 new wells total over the next six years. Both plans will likely mean higher water rates for Mesa residents, said Brian Draper, the city’s water resources advisor.

Draper said the pipeline will enable the city to send more effluent water to the Gila River Indian Community to be used for agriculture. The city gets an amount of Colorado River water suitable for drinking from the Central Arizona Project equivalent to 80 percent of the effluent it sends the tribe, but at the lower rates the tribe pays. In another agreement, the tribe will get up to $233 million for infrastructure and conservation measures from the federal government to save over 125,000 acre-feet of water.

Mesa is not looking to buy water from other basins, Draper said, thanks to its more robust and diversified water supply, which comes from the Salt River Project, a state utility that provides water from the Salt and Verde Rivers and 250 groundwater wells, as well as the Central Arizona Project. Buckeye relies almost exclusively on groundwater, forcing it to turn to new ways to get water to continue growing or when wells run dry. 

Finding new supplies of water is nothing new in Arizona, said Orsborn, the mayor of Buckeye. But the projects are increasingly testing untapped sources, water experts said. 

“I do think we will continue growing,” said Haley Paul, Arizona policy director for the National Audubon Society. “It’s where and how we grow. Buckeye has got big dreams. But maybe it’s not a million people. There are limits.”

Cities Are Making Deals, But Still Face Hurdles

The deals aren’t just happening in the Harquahala Basin. Across the state, companies have bought up farmland in hopes of selling their water rights to fast-growing cities, like Queen Creek, which last year agreed to a $27 million purchase of Colorado River water from former farms in Cibola, Arizona, owned by Greenstone, a subsidiary of MassMutual. 

La Paz, Mohave and Yuma counties, all rural areas situated along the California border, sued the Bureau of Reclamation for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. “While the Colorado River flows continue to diminish, and Lake Mead water elevations continue to plummet, Reclamation has set the stage for thousands of acres of farmland to be idled and tens of thousands of acre-feet of Colorado River water to be transferred off the river without any analysis whatsoever,” the lawsuit reads. 

Last month, the court denied the counties claims and found them “not likely to suffer irreparable harm as a result” of the deal. 

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has to approve both Buckeye and Queen Creek’s deals with the Harquahala Valley Landowners, LLC, which is looking for approval to pump a total of 7.6 million acre-feet of water from the basin over the next 100 years. 

The Arizona statute that allows for the transfer of water out of the Harquahala Basin says that the land holding the irrigation rights can only transfer a set amount of water for each acre— six acre feet a year or 30 acre feet every 10 years, unless the director of the water department determines a greater withdrawal won’t impact the surrounding land or other nearby water users. The deal, Ferris said, is for more water than the land is entitled to, though it will come down to the water department to determine if the deal can go through.

“I don’t know how this proposal that the landowners have to sell one acre and transfer much more water than that acre is entitled to will all work out,” Ferris said.

The deal also relies on the state water department issuing approvals for both the volume of water that can be pumped out and the method of transporting it to Buckeye.

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Even if the city’s deal is approved, it still needs to find a way to deliver and treat the water. Water pumped in the Harquahala Basin is high in nitrates and arsenic. Moving it through the Central Arizona Project would require a contract with both the federal government and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which would likely demand the water be treated before it was mixed with the other water in the project’s canal.

“Nobody’s yet been given one of those contracts,” Ferris said. “So that’s an obstacle. and if it’s going to be wheeled in that canal, it will have to be treated.”

Orsborn, Buckeye’s mayor, said the city is still working on how it will transport the water.

The water department is still reviewing both Buckeye and Queen Creek’s applications and does not know when it will be finished, a spokesperson said.

Water Infrastructure Key to Any New Supplies

How cities will build the infrastructure to manage new sources of water remains to be seen and is the biggest question experts have for any plan to bring new supplies to communities in need across the state. 

Across the Valley from Buckeye lies the Rio Verde Foothills. The small community—with roughly 2,000 homes on unincorporated land governed by Maricopa County north of Scottsdale—had its main water supply cut off by the city at the beginning of this year.

Ferris said the situation there is a prime example of what can happen to an area that doesn’t have proper water infrastructure and runs into issues of drought.

“There isn’t a water provider there,” she said. “So no one has built the water delivery system to move the water to those homes, which is the way we in Arizona developed historically” in the Phoenix and Tucson areas.

For months, residents of the Rio Verde Foothills and local politicians have searched for a short-term solution to the community’s water woes. Rio Verde Foothills leaders have said the issue isn’t finding a source of water for the community, but determining a way to get it to them that Scottsdale and the county can agree on. 

So far, none of the plans have come to fruition. 

Unlike many other states, Arizona lacks a regional approach to addressing water issues. Still, water policy experts remain hopeful that change will come to Arizona water management. 

People won’t stop moving to Arizona. Maricopa County—home to Buckeye, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale and the Rio Verde Foothills—welcomed 56,831 residents in 2022, the most of any county in the nation. That means new solutions will need to be developed to help the region grow responsibly in the face of climate change.

Recently elected Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, signed an executive order establishing the Governor’s Water Policy Council, which will help to “modernize and expand” the Arizona Groundwater Management Act. That council can begin the work to find solutions addressing water challenges across the state, Megdal said, and help determine how the water supplies will influence Arizona’s growth.

“We don’t want to have the water ghost towns of the future,” she said. “We had mining towns, (that are now empty), nobody wants that. We want to grow responsibly.”

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