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Water shortage could ice this fast-growth Arizona town

One place very likely to feel the impact of Arizona’s new homebuilding limits based on water restrictions is Queen Creek.

Arizona has determined that there is not enough groundwater for all of the housing construction that has already been approved in the Phoenix area, and will stop developers from building some new subdivisions, a sign of looming trouble in the West and other places where overuse, drought and climate change are straining water supplies.

Queen Creek was still mostly peach and citrus groves and expansive farmland when Arizona created its groundwater rules more than 40 years ago. Today, Queen Creek is one of the fastest-growing places in Arizona, where families go fishing at an “oasis” lake fed by recycled wastewater. The town’s population of 75,000 is projected to grow to 175,000 by the time it is built out decades from now.

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

“We’re in search of about 30,000 acre feet” — about 9.8 billion gallons — per year, said Paul Gardner, Queen Creek’s utility director.

Since there isn’t enough groundwater to supply its needs for future growth, Queen Creek is hunting for water anywhere it can — exploring proposals such as transferring it via canal from western Arizona, expanding the Bartlett Lake reservoir by joining other cities in a project to build a higher dam.

Unlike Phoenix, Queen Creek doesn’t have a “designation” from the state — essentially, a determination that the city has enough water to support new homes. Without that designation, each proposed development must prove to the state it has a 100-year supply. 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 Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University has warned that Arizona is still pumping too much groundwater. New industrial projects are sucking up groundwater without restrictions, and demand for water is outpacing any gains from conservation efforts, the center found in a 2021 report.

Despite the increasingly dire warnings from the state and water experts, some developers note that construction will not stop anytime soon. The Arizona water agency has given permission for construction on about 80,000 housing lots that have yet to be built, a state official said.

Cynthia Campbell, Phoenix’s water-resources management adviser, said the city largely relies on river water, and groundwater represents only about 2% of its water supply. But that could change drastically if Arizona were hit with drastic cuts in its Colorado River allotments, forcing the city to pump more groundwater.

Many outlying developments and towns in Maricopa County’s sprawl have been able to build by enrolling in a state-authorized program that lets subdivisions suck up groundwater in one place if they pump it back into the ground elsewhere in the basin.

Campbell said the idea that you could balance water supplies like that had always been a “legal fiction” — one that now appears to be unraveling, as the state takes a harder look at where the groundwater supplies are coming up short.

“This is the hydrologic disconnect coming home to roost,” Campbell said.

In outlying areas, “a lot of the developers are really worried. They’re freaked,” Campbell said. “The reality is it all came back to catch us.”

The decision by state officials very likely means the beginning of the end to the explosive development that has made the Phoenix area the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country.

The state said it would not revoke building permits that have already been issued and is instead counting on new water conservation measures and alternative sources to produce the water necessary for housing developments that have already been approved.

On Thursday, Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said Arizona was not immediately running dry and that new construction would continue in major cities such as Phoenix. The analysis prepared by the state looked at groundwater levels over the next 100 years.

“We’re going to manage this situation,” she said at a news conference. “We are not out of water, and we will not be running out of water.”

Source: Orange County Register

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