New subdivisions are flowing into the desert, beyond the reach of the state’s biggest water system — the Central Arizona Project.
Developers see a freedom of choice. Growth critics see houses where they don’t belong.
Both give credit — or blame — to a 1993 creation of the Legislature known as the Central Arizona Ground Water Replenishment District (CAGRD). They see it as a way to give developers a way around restrictions on groundwater use in the state’s desert basins, where most people live and most growth is taking place.
“It’s totally a great deal for developers,” says Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. “We don’t think it’s a good way to conserve water and we certainly think that it is helping to drive development in areas where it might not be appropriate.”
Cliff Neal, Central Arizona Ground Water Replenishment District director, says policy-makers saw a regional groundwater replenishment district as a reasonable way to accommodate growth — while keeping groundwater stocks intact.
“I do think that the Legislature back in the early ‘90s said what we want to do is help protect landowners’ rights, and if a landowner wants to build a subdivision on their land, this does provide that ability,” Mr. Neal says.
Before the Ground Water Replenishment District, there was the 1980 groundwater management law. It added tough new restrictions on groundwater use — at least in areas where high use threatened water tables. These were identified as active management areas [AMA]. It’s a complicated picture, but here’s a key element: Water from the Central Arizona Project, drawing off the Colorado River, would save the groundwater. Homeowners would water their lawns and farm crops with CAP water. It would replace or replenish groundwater use in three large regional AMAs — Phoenix, Tucson and, to lesser extent, Pinal.
Groundwater, by law, would become increasingly off limits. By 2025, there would be no more wiggle room for Phoenix and Tucson. By then, the two most populous management areas would be expected to replace all the water tapped from the ground. Every drop of groundwater would be matched by a drop of surface water. This is called a safe-yield.
For developers, the sticking point was the law’s favoritism for landholders served by the CAP — cities and irrigation districts as well as Indian tribes. Land outside the service area, non-agricultural desert land, had no renewable supplies of water to replace the groundwater.
Without that, this was land that developers could not build on. It didn’t matter if they could show an assured supply of water for the next 100 years, as required by state law in the central-basin AMAs. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) couldn’t give a green light to the Real Estate Department without replenishment.
Jim Hartdegen, a current CAP board member, said developers pushed for a way to use CAP water to offset groundwater use outside the traditional CAP service area. The pressure paid off, he says, with the creation of Ground Water Replenishment District.
“What the CAGRD did basically was to create a piece of paper that you can take down to the Real Estate Department and say, ‘Look, I’ve got a 100 years of water.’ And that created a way for them to start building houses.”
But Karl Polen, former chief financial officer for Robson communities, says the replenishment district wasn’t just crafted by developers and forced on the state.
Mr. Polen helped guide groundwater replenishment discussions before the Legislature in the early 1990s. The agenda wasn’t dominated by developers, he says. It was a regional effort joined by different interests, including state officials, rural communities and landowners. They did not want to left out of the benefits of development.
“DWR had been trying to put together an assured water-supply program for a number of years,” he says. “Really it was a collaborative effort between the development interests and the state. And that’s how the groundwater replenishment district got done. It wasn’t forced on anybody.”
As it stands now, membership in CAGRD has two categories. In one, water companies, special districts or cities can seek to serve a large area. If they meet all the requirements, they will receive from DWR a designation of assured water — putting them on more or less equal footing with large cities like Phoenix or Mesa. Builders within the service area need nothing more than a letter of commitment from the water provider. Then they’re free to build.
But many builders are looking to develop outside service areas. And they join CAGRD through a process that certifies each subdivision as it’s built. That’s the member-land category. Here, CAGRD keeps figures on subdivisions and households.
And, judging by the numbers, growth in CAGRD member lands is beginning to reach escape velocity. In 1995, 184 homes were listed. That figure now stands at about 180,000 homes total, representing some 895 subdivisions, says Mr. Neal of CAGRD. In 2004 alone, the district added 25,000 households.
On the surface, CAGRD membership is voluntary. But it might be the only way outside the CAP service area to replenish groundwater. The district guarantees to replace whatever groundwater its members pump out.
But critics say there’s a loophole big enough to drive a water tanker through. The replacement water need not — and isn’t likely to — be fed back into the same ground from whence it came. It can be pumped into CAGRD recharge ponds accessible to CAP channels, as long as it goes somewhere into the AMA. For the 5,600 square-mile Phoenix AMA, replenishment water can delivered by one of four recharge facilities.
There’s no guarantee that water will reach the subdivision some 30 miles away, says Kathy Jacobs, director of the Arizona Water Institute, a consortium of the state’s three universities. Without a renewable source, she says, the groundwater could be spent after that first 100 years or more.
“At some point,” Ms. Jacobs says, “the physical water will get used up and there’ll be a need to transport water into that area, which will be very expensive.”
Mr. Hartdegen, the CAP board member, cites what he considers the worst example of misplaced recharge. A retirement community near Oracle north of Tucson draws groundwater with the blessings of a CAGRD membership. The recharge water ends up on the other side of a mountain range, he says.
“That water’s not going to go uphill, That water, if anything probably migrates west into Pinal County,” he says.
Mr. Neal, CAGRD director, says the replenishment scheme sometimes helps to provide a balance. It’s not unusual for members to draw on areas where the water table is high, with the recharge water going into areas where it’s needed.
Mr. Polen, a former CAP board member himself, says homeowners in CAGRD needn’t worry about the tap going dry, even if the recharge takes places miles away. The 100-year assurance is just a minimum requirement, Mr. Polen says.
“In every case where I’ve worked on a major project,” he says, “even though we only to had prove 100 years assurance, there generally were several hundred years of water under the property.”
For Spencer Kamps, a lobbyist for the Homebuilders Association of Central Arizona, a century’s worth of water is nothing to scoff at.
“A 100-year assured water supply, to my knowledge, is the highest threshold of any state definition,” Mr. Kamps says. “California only has 20 years. And for all intents and purposes, in the legal world, a 100 years is forever. So once somebody secures a water supply for 100 years, it’s never going away.”
Wherever in the active management area (AMA) the water goes, somebody has to pay for recharge water and its delivery. That cost is passed onto the consumer. Each homeowner in a member subdivision is assessed an annual fee — payable to Central Arizona Ground Water Replenishment District. It shows up on the county property tax statement. In the Phoenix AMA, the 2006 charge is expected to run about $237, rising to $253 in 2007.
“That piece of property will pay for that water forever,” Mr. Hartdegen says.
That water — the recharge water — currently comes from what is known as “excess CAP” water. This is water that hasn’t been spoken for by regular CAP customers, including cities, irrigation districts and Indian tribes.
But growth is expected to whittle away that excess by 2030. Mr. Neal, the CAGRD director, says his agency is already looking for other replacement sources, including the purchase of water farms, buying water from Indian tribes and cities. Effluent could play a bigger role as well.
The law doesn’t just expect the district to find new sources, once the CAP excess dries up. It’s a requirement.
“CAGRD’s role is to replenish whatever groundwater they would pump,” Mr. Neal says.
Mr. Hartdegen agrees, if with a slightly different spin.
“After the developer builds that last lot and he’s moved on to Florida, it’s going to be up to CAGRD to find that water,” he says.
Scramble for water looms
But CAGRD won’t be the only one going for water outside the CAP deliveries. Cities like Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa will need new sources of water — as they too have to replace what they take from the ground. As it is, everybody seems to be playing catch-up. The Department of Resources reports that the Phoenix active management area will not achieve the 2025 safe-yield goal “at our current rate and under our current programs.”
If the scramble for additional water isn’t yet on, it’s at least looming on the horizon, Mr. Hartdegen says.
And that could put him and other CAP board members in a tight spot. As it happens, the CAGRD board members and CAP board members are one in the same. (The CAP board formally governs the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.) Sitting as the CAP board, members answer to clients with firm CAP contracts, including the large cities. As CAGRD board members, they answer to the district.
It could be a tough balancing act, Mr. Hartdegen says.
“Most cities will say that we have a conflict,” he says.
Competition for future water
Those same cities might wonder just who’s side the board is on, if a water war breaks out.
“One of the things most brought up is the competition in the future for water,” Mr. Hartdegen says. Of the cities, he adds, “Most of them that I know kind of fear that.”
Mr. Polen strongly disagrees. The hunt for water in Arizona has historically been a matter of cooperation, not conflict.
“To the extent you’ve worked out what’s going to happen 50 to 100 years from now, you will reduce, not foster, competition,” Mr. Polen says.
But one city water administrator says if nothing is done now, there will be a fight not only for water — but for its delivery.
“There’s only one canal that brings water from the Colorado River into central Arizona,” says Kathryn Sorensen, city of Mesa water resources coordinator.
For now, the available capacity for such non-CAP water runs up to 350,000 acre feet — out of the 1.6-million acre feet the canal can carry. But that capacity will likely reach its limits in a number of years, Ms. Sorensen says.
One source for additional water, for example, could be water farms along the Colorado, all feeding into the canal. Whether the canal will be able to carry all that water is another question, particularly with competition from CAGRD.
“There’s going to be more claims on it than there’s capacity available,” Ms. Sorensen says.
And, like Mr. Hartdegen, she wonders where the CAP board will place its loyalties.
“Sure, there’s a fear that CAGRD will get preferential access to that capacity,” Ms. Sorensen says.
One thing is sure, the capacity will be challenged to keep up with growth of the Phoenix AMA as a whole. Cities like Phoenix continue to support development. As for CAGRD, it’s signing off on thousands of new homes in master-planned communities like Verrado, far west of Phoenix. The next possible CAGRD move could be into a 360-square-mile chunk of state trust land known as Superstition Vistas in Pinal County.
As yet, state Land Department officials have not tested CAGRD waters, says Richard Hubbard, deputy land commissioner.
“We want to take advantage of it, and we haven’t done so yet,” Mr. Hubbard says.
Officials, he adds, are looking at ways to bring trust lands into the groundwater-replenishment district at the point of sale — if not before.
In a report by the Morrison Institute of Arizona State University, Superstition Vistas could be home to a million people by 2090. But that’s just a drop in the bucket. By the end of the century, the Phoenix, Tucson and Pinal active management areas could be home to more than 17 million people, the report says. That’s a lot of water flowing through the tap.
Mr. Hartgeden, for one, wonders if there is enough — and how much longer CAGRD can take on new members.
“There’s several of us who have been saying, ‘Look, how far can we go? At what point do we say, ‘we cannot honestly supply you water.’”
New subdivisions are flowing into the desert, beyond the reach of the state’s biggest water system — the Central Arizona Project.