Arizona seeks to avert groundwater disaster  

Zack Budryk

Arizona is facing a severe water shortage that is threatening growth in the Phoenix area — a development that could serve as a harbinger for the region.

Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) and other state officials late Thursday said overuse of water and the drought mean that some 4.9 million acre-feet of water will not be available to meet demand.

As a result, new construction that requires the use of groundwater will be halted in the affected region.

In essence, the restrictions are necessary because all of the physically accessible groundwater in the area is already spoken for, said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.

Arizona’s groundwater is stored in underground aquifers that take so long to replenish that the state rules require that planned homes or businesses reliant on them must be able to ensure water supply for the next 100 years.

“We have these rules in place to protect people from buying a home without a water supply, so that’s really the effect here,” Porter told The Hill. “The state is telling developers you can no longer rely on the water underneath the future subdivision as the water for that subdivision.”

Climate change and drought are a constant background presence when it comes to Western water politics. Arizona recently agreed to shoulder the bulk of cuts to water allocations for states in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin that depend on that source for their water.

Policies surrounding groundwater in Arizona are a separate issue from that dispute.

Unlike the river water, Porter said, “Out here in Arizona, groundwater is considered a non-renewable water supply.”

As a resource, she said, it has more in common with underground ore bodies like copper. “At some point, someone would say, there’s no more ore body to sell. So that’s kind of what we’re having here.”

Hobbs has sought to draw a clear line with her predecessor, former Gov. Doug Ducey (R), on groundwater preservation.

In January, shortly after her inauguration, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) released a report outlining the unmet groundwater demand in the area. Specifically, the department determined the Hassayampa sub-basin west of Phoenix had some 4.4 million acre-feet of unmet demand of groundwater.

“We must take these actions today because in many parts of our state, there are effectively no restrictions on groundwater pumping and local communities have little-to-no support to manage water supplies,” Hobbs said in her January State of the State address, calling on lawmakers to update the state’s 40-year-old Groundwater Management Act.

“As a result, a new water user can move in, dig a well, and pump as much water as possible — even if it dries up the community’s aquifer,” she added.

As early as 2021, ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke warned of groundwater shortfalls, particularly in the largely agricultural Pinal Active Management Area.

Although the Ducey administration addressed groundwater issues as well, Hobbs “has demonstrated that she prefers to take a more transparent approach to water challenges,” Porter said.

“It was always going to be the case that we would get to this point, where all of the various demands for groundwater resulted in its being fully allocated,” Porter said.

If the agency’s decision isn’t enough to address the groundwater shortfall, state officials have numerous other options to attempt to preserve groundwater, according to Katherine Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

For example, she said, they can explore options like bringing in water from western Arizona, bargaining with Native American tribes for water rights or treating municipal wastewater.

Jacobs called the move “a very farsighted decision,” adding it essentially means that the groundwater program “is working, and that is really heartening.”