The sprawling neighborhoods chewing into the Sonoran Desert on the fringes of Phoenix are some of the fastest-growing communities in the country, adding 800,000 people to the metropolitan area over the past decade. But there isn’t enough water to sustain them, and last week Arizona’s leaders took the dramatic (but eminently necessary) step to restrict the construction of new homes in this region if the developers’ plans include relying on groundwater wells. With so many new developments pumping the precious resource from depleted aquifers, the state had no choice but to step in. “If we do nothing, we could face a 4 percent shortfall in groundwater supplies over the next 100 years,” Arizona governor Katie Hobbs said. “We have to close this gap.” After years of U.S. leaders pledging to take sweeping action to protect their constituents from increasingly worsening climate disasters, Hobbs is now among the few who are seriously confronting the root of the issue — where we live and where we build (or, more accurately, where we don’t build).
Current Arizona law requires that new developments must demonstrate they have access to a 100-year “assured” water supply, but new models have consistently shown that what was once “assured” is less so in an era of climate change. A comprehensive groundwater survey published earlier this year — previously buried by Republican leaders, and only unsealed after Democrats including Hobbs took control of the state government in January — includes dire projections for a fast-growing area northwest of Phoenix, warning that the state “cannot approve the development of subdivisions in the area that intend to rely on groundwater.” People living in water-insecure developments have already started to feel the impacts of what such a shortfall might look like. Last year, residents of some suburban Phoenix subdivisions were cut off by adjacent Scottsdale after the city — decimated by drought — was no longer able to sell them excess water from its own reserves. Homeowners in the unincorporated municipality of Rio Verde Foothills have been forced to buy water elsewhere, capture it from the sky, or consider $60,000 bids to dig their own wells (if their land is even geologically eligible). Residents who have been showering at the gym and eating from paper plates recently brought a lawsuit against the city to restore their water access. “Scottsdale has caused a humanitarian crisis for these residents and their families,” lawyer Dan Slavin told The Guardian.
Despite the past winter’s record-breaking wet weather, even more reductions are coming. A sweeping new agreement among states and tribes that use Colorado River water was just signed last week, with Arizona among the three states that have agreed to take 13 percent less through 2026. The deal, as historic as it is, still isn’t enough to prevent future cuts, which will almost certainly need to be made by the agriculture industry, which consumes about 74 percent of the state’s fresh-water supplies. But the Arizona government has signaled that it’s taking that situation more seriously, too. After an investigation by the new attorney general Kris Mayes (also a Democrat), the state recently revoked well permits for a Saudi-owned dairy company that’s drawing down the state’s groundwater to grow water-intensive alfalfa, a crop that is actually illegal to grow in Saudi Arabia due to their own drought restrictions.
The availability of water in a region facing a forever drought isn’t the only limiting factor that’s shaping where Americans will be able to live long term. Last month, State Farm, the largest property insurer in the country, announced it would not take on new home-insurance clients in California due to increased wildfire risk. (Shortly after, it was revealed Allstate had quietly stopped writing new policies in California as well.) Affordable insurance is also harder to come by in states like Florida, where sea-level rise threatens both coastal properties and the state’s fresh-water supplies due to saltwater intrusion. It’s a reminder that climate policy decisions will not only need to protect residents from destructive forces like wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, but also from less violent but equally urgent disasters like a slowly desiccating groundwater basin. And officials who won’t begin earnest discussions about relocation — the loaded phrase is managed retreat — may end up having a climate disaster make the decision for them at a catastrophic and potentially deadly cost.
What Arizona is proposing is not quite managed retreat — up to 80,000 under-construction homes in already-permitted subdivisions have still been given the green light to build — but what the new rules will do is send a strong message that the state will no longer be subsidizing sprawl at the expense of its own water security, as Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, told CNN: “It’s going to make it harder for developments to spring up on raw desert in the far-flung parts of town where developers like to develop.” This curtailing of new development — as well as the ongoing uncertainty for existing subdivisions scrambling to find reliable water sources — is also likely to raise home prices in a market where new buyers have flocked in search of cheaper housing. Which means that, as the unsustainability of Arizona’s desert suburbs or California’s fire-prone mansions or Florida’s oceanfront condos becomes increasingly clear, the need to invest in the places where we can safely build new housing becomes equally urgent. As Hobbs notes, urbanized areas of Phoenix and other cities will not be affected by the state’s new groundwater policy because these places have planned for denser development along existing utility networks — where residents already use less water per capita.