Arizona limited growth due to water scarcity. Can cities continue to grow?

As mayor of an old farming town exploding with new homes, factories and warehouses, Eric Orsborne spends his days thinking about water. The lifeblood of this development is billions of gallons of water pumped from the ground, and as builders push deeper into Phoenix’s desert fringes, her city of Buckeye, Ariz.

But last week, Arizona announced it would limit some future home construction in Buckeye and elsewhere because of groundwater shortages. Concerned calls from Mr. started coming to Orsborne.

“I’ve had neighbors come up to me and say, ‘What are you doing? Are we going to run out of water?'” Mr. Orsborne said. “It put our community on edge, saying, ‘What’s going on here, do I have to move?’

No, he tells them. Breathe.

The surge comes as a new state study finds groundwater supplies in the Phoenix area are 4 percent short of what is needed for projected growth over the next 100 years. That may seem like a distant horizon, but it is enough to force the government to rethink its future in the long term.

Now, there are urgent questions about how Arizona should use its increasingly precious water — for water-guzzling alfalfa and lettuce farms, or for new computer chip and battery factories and coffee-creamer production? For new expansion or overdevelopment within cities? Can the Phoenix suburbs continue their rapid growth? Do they want to?

“No, we’re not working,” said Grady Gammage, former head of the Central Arizona Project, an aqueduct system that carries Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. “It may slow growth somewhat. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Highly regulated areas like Phoenix, Arizona have the strictest groundwater laws in the country. For decades, new developments have been required to show the state has a 100-year water supply.

The planned shortage means developers in Phoenix’s fast-growing suburbs can no longer get state approval to build new subdivisions that rely on groundwater wells, meaning they must get water elsewhere.

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But Arizona and other fast-growing Western states have limited sources of fresh water at a time when cities and developers are competing for every spare drop. Experts said that could push up housing costs, which have already risen 51 percent over the past four years, according to Zillow, and Arizona’s appeal will be an affordable location for businesses and new residents.

“It will change the look of development,” Mr. Gammage said. “Higher density, less ground, fewer swimming pools.”

Ever since news of groundwater shortages sent shock waves across the Phoenix area, mayors, developers and business groups have sought to reassure jittery investors, homeowners and potential new businesses that Arizona still has water. The Colorado River is beginning to reshape its future.

Gov. Katie Hobbs, who has focused on Arizona’s water supply in her first months in office, said the groundwater decision would not derail any projects already approved and would have little impact on growth in most major cities around the Phoenix area. The government said 80,000 lots are being provided with building permits that can be moved forward, even on the fringes of suburbs.

But for some residents around Buckeye, Regular ranking As one of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country, it felt like an overestimate was finally coming — the beginning of a new era in which the rapidly expanding Phoenix area couldn’t sprawl endlessly across the Sonoran Desert.

“I always worry,” said Trudy Hahn, 71, who moved to Buckeye in 1980, when the population was just 3,400. Today, it has more than 110,000 residents, and city officials say they envision 1.5 million people Living there – enough to rival the current Phoenix.

On Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Han and her family huddled under an umbrella, watching her grandson play flag football on a lawn fed by treated sewage in a subdivision of Spanish-tiled houses on an unbroken expanse of desert.

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Inocente Cayetano moved from Goodyear, Ariz., to Buckeye, just 15 miles west, just before the pandemic, where it was cheap and unconcerned about water. He said a starter home in Buckeye costs $100,000 less than in a city near Phoenix, allowing him to invest his savings in a mobile coffee trailer. Business took off, and he began building a storefront location in one of Buckeye’s ambitious master-planned communities.

“It’s a little gold mine,” he said.

He hopes the city will have enough water to brew coffee and fill taps.

Buckeye’s affordability has drawn a growing number of black and Latino families from California, the Midwest and other corners of Arizona over the past 20 years. Today, the city has a higher percentage of Latino residents than Arizona as a whole.

In the western parts of the city, the realities of limited groundwater soon come into focus. There, west of the jagged White Basin Mountains, bulldozers cleared creosote bushes to make way for the first homes in a new development called Terravalis, which plans to build 100,000 homes and 55 million square feet of commercial space.

The development, owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation, has received approval from state water officials to build 7,000 homes. But now, developers of several projects in the deserts of Deravalis and Western Bakke must find other sources of water to get permission to build the rest of the project.

The limits mean cities on the outer fringes of Maricopa County, home to 4.5 million people, must redouble their hunt for new water sources. They are looking for ways to conserve, recycle wastewater, expand reservoirs, or siphon treated seawater from Mexico.

Buckeye’s mayor, Mr. Orsborne said. That would add enough water to serve about 18,000 homes each year for the next century. But, in total, Buckeye officials estimate that 30 times the amount would be needed a year.

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“It’s going to be incredibly expensive,” Mr. Orsborne said.

Buckeye is also exploring a range of ideas: new wastewater treatment plants; brackish water impoundments near the now pumped Gila River bend; Phoenix joined other cities to expand a reservoir by building a high dam in the mountains northeast of the city.

Ultimately, Bucky’s goal is to convince Arizona that it has enough water resources to merit a Native state “designation”—whatever. A water user group call “Platinum standard” for water supply in the desert.

Phoenix and other major cities around Maricopa County already have these designations from the state, meaning they can continue to grow even if groundwater-based development is halted.

“Urban sprawl, lack of transportation — all of those issues are going to be helped by this change,” said Benjamin Rudel, a professor at Northern Arizona University who studies water use. “It’s not the worst thing in the world unless you’re a land speculator who wants to turn the desert into housing.”

Land buyers like Anita Verma-Lalian are still optimistic about the future of development on the edge of Phoenix. He said undeveloped land with assured water supply is in high demand after the government’s announcement. Developers are looking for other uses for the land without the now-defunct state water certificates. Mrs. Varma-Lalian said there are clauses that do not require a 100-year water supply to legally be used to convert 2,000 acres of land, once planned for housing, into sites for factories or warehouses.

Intel and a Taiwanese semiconductor company are building new chip plants around Phoenix. In Bucky, there is work A new lithium-ion battery is underway at the factory.

“That happens a lot,” Ms. Verma-Lalian said. “There will be a lot more industrial development on land designed for residential.”

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