Arizona faces an existential dilemma: import water or end the housing boom (2023)

TThis month, a suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona found itself in a nightmare scenario for all communities living in the drought-stricken Southwest of the United States: the water supply was cut off. Serra do Rio Verde,a communityOut of around 600 homes, it emerged in the 1970s without its own piped water supply. For decades, it relied on water trucked in from the city. But after 20 years of severe drought across the region, Scottsdale says it must now conserve the water, which it gets from the Colorado River via a canal, for its own residents. Residents of Serra do Rio Verde nowskip the bathand travel kilometers in search of drinking water. On January 12, the community filed a high-profile lawsuit against Scottsdale.

The drama in the Rio Verde Foothills sums up, in miniature, an existential problem facing all of Arizona: In an era when climate change is dwindling water supplies, should the desert state continue to build homes that rely on other people's water? places?

The answer, given the current situation in Sopé do Rio Verde, may seem obvious. But that's precisely the question facing Arizona officials and developers as they try to sustain one of the country's biggest population booms. Since 2000, when the Colorado River dried up, Arizona has become increasingly dependent on pumping.underground water, which today supplies 41% of the state's needs. Meanwhile, some cities, like Tucson, went tolong distancesreduce the amount of water consumed per inhabitant. Yet at the same time, Arizona enthusiastically welcomes tens of thousands of new residents, drawn by cheap housing and endless sunshine, each year. In 2022, four of the ten fastest growing counties in the US were in Arizona, according tocensus data, with the municipality of Maricopa, where the Contraforte do Rio Verde is located, in eighth place on the list. (In addition to families, other newcomers to the state include tech companies, whosedata centersrequire millions of gallons of water to keep servers from overheating).

Arizona faces an existential dilemma: import water or end the housing boom (1)

Water flows along Lake Powell on October 23, 2022 in Page, Arizona.

Joshua Lott—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Boom can no longer survive in the underground waters. On January 9, the new Democratic governor of Arizona, Katie Hobbs, unveileda report, hidden from the public by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, showing that a large area west of the White Tank Mountains, west of Phoenix, does not have enough groundwater to support all the houses, enough for 800,000 people, which the developers want. to build there. To get the approval, said the director of Arizona Water Resourceslocal media,large projects will have to “find other water supplies or other solutions”.

With the state's river water already depleted, those "other" supplies, experts say, would likely mean imported water. Pie-in-the-sky projects to bring water in from outside of Arizona, like 1,000 milesMississippi River Pipeline, have been bouncing around the state legislature for years. However, as climate change deepens the state's water crisis, a drastic idea has gained traction. In December, Arizona's newly expanded state water finance board voted in favor of a proposed $5 billion desalination plant in Mexico's Sea of ​​Cortez, potentiallyThe biggest in the world- that would pump water north through a 200-mile pipeline. IDE, the Israeli company behind the proposal, says it is now submitting it for federal environmental review.

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bring the water

Moving water from water-rich areas to dry areas is nothing new.Channel systems that did just thatthey were crucial to the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. In Arizona, more than 80% of the population depends on aartificial channelswhich diverts water from the Colorado River on the west bank of the state to population centers further east. But today, deepening droughts and population explosions are prompting leaders in the Southwest to consider major projects that would bring water from ever more distant places. In Utah, where migration is drivingnever seen beforegrowth, a legislative committee floated the idea of ​​building an oil pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to resupply the parched Great Salt Lake. Nevada, which has been growing rapidly for half a century, regularly discusses similar ideas.

Builders and agribusiness groups see in these proposals the promise of a"dry test"water supply that could sustain growth in the Southwest for decades to come. But critics see a different future, where imported water fuels environmental destruction and raises utility prices for consumers, and where US states become dependent on good relations with a foreign country for their survival.

Margaret Wilder, a professor of human and environmental geography in the University of Arizona's College of Geography, Development and Environment, warns that the real estate industry could use large-scale desalination projects to justify “much more unsustainable development in the desert in the future. ”

The prospect of slowing Arizona's population growth "is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no water authority wants to talk about, because it's politically untenable to do so," Wilder says. As a result, he adds, "desalination is touted as an inevitable fate for Arizona."

import problems

Environmentalists say IDE's desalination project would harm the planet on multiple fronts. First, where water is desalinated off the Mexican coast, residual salt will likely need to be deposited back into the Sea of ​​Cortez, threatening an area so rich in wildlife that Jacques Cousteau called it "the world's aquarium." Second, the project's pipeline would run through land that is home to Mexicans and wildlife and, on the Arizona side of the border, Organ Pipe National Monument. Third, the desalination process is extremelyintensive energy,and their large-scale use can lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions, which are the source of the climate change that limits the region's water supply in the first place.

Arizona faces an existential dilemma: import water or end the housing boom (2)

John Honewer sets alarms on his phone at two-minute intervals, after which he puts a quarter at the gas station as he fills up his 6,000-gallon tanker truck to transport water from Apache Junction to Rio Verde Foothills, Arizona, USA. ., on January 7, 2023 .

Washington Post/fake images

“We as Arizonans can't continue to take water from other places without considering how it affects the people and places we take it from,” says Cary Meiser, president of conservation for the Yuma Audubon Society and Colorado River coordinator for the Sierra Club. work force

Even ignoring these environmental risks, the cost to Arizona residents could be great. At the moment, cities in the state typically pay between $50 and $150 for an acre-foot of water, or 326,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre of land with one foot of water. That's about the amount used annually by the average family of three in Phoenix, according to the state's director of water resources. The IDE director estimates that desalinated water would cost between $2,200 and $3,300 per acre. The final price for consumers would be determined and possibly subsidized by local governments. But it can become inaccessible to low-income families living in parts of the state that depend on imported water.

A dry road ahead

This cost issue means that even if desalination provides an abundant supply of water for Arizona, it probably won't save the state's housing market, says Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University. The industry's recent success, he says, depends on "a fiction of unlimited cheap housing" backed by the government's ability to provide cheap water. If this can no longer be done everywhere, the cost of properties with stable water connections will increase. And, as the people who spend the most on utility billsless to spend on mortgage bills, banks may stop lending to homes in regions that depend on expensive imported water. “We have reached the limit of the public sector's ability to conquer nature with infrastructure,” says Keenan. "Now is the time for the private sector to bring discipline."

Environmentalists also advocate discipline in Arizona's relationship with water. They want the government to focus on reducing the demand for water instead of expanding the supply. That would mean measures to control or limit real estate development, as well as encourage other water-saving measures by existing consumers, forcing farms to switch to water-intensive crops like alfalfa and better regulating water use. underground.

The Hobbs government could mark a turning point. He promised to create a council to oversee the modernization of groundwater regulations and their implementation. His office says the body will also try to shut downgapsthat allowed developers to circumvent a 1980 law that required 100-year proof of water supply for projects with more than six homes. (The developer of Rio Verde Foothills, for example, has divided its homes into groups of five or fewer.)

The governor will face resistance from the Republican-led state legislature, which has repeatedlyrejected proposalsthat implies strict limits on the use of groundwater in rural areas.

But as more water disputes emerge, like the one over the Rio Verde Foothills, Wilder hopes Arizonans understand the risks of endless expansion into the desert. “I'm not in favor of stopping the bridge behind us, but we need to slow this train down,” she says. “We need to start asking questions when people present us with these sensible, sensible solutions to the water problem.”

Correction, January 21:The original version of this story misspelled the name of the community that relied on the city of Scottsdale for its water supply. The community is known as Contraforte do Rio Verde, not Rio Verde.

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