Water Crisis: Statewide Wake-Up Call on Rural Development?

Dwindling groundwater and relatively unrestrained homebuilding have compelled residents of New River and Desert Hills to push the state for tighter restrictions on development as they work to create their own water district. Some are even looking into incorporating an entire new town.

The water issue “has kind of exploded,” said Maricopa County District 3 Supervisor Bill Gates. “It’s clear there is some connection between the water issue and the development issue. You do need to consider them together.”

Other rural communities in Arizona have faced similar problems, Gates said. But having it happen in Maricopa County, in the backyard of state government offices, “has captured peoples’ attention,” he told In&Out. “I would say this is a catalyst for us.”


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Less Water, More Homes

The aquifer under New River and Desert Hills, at the northern edge of Phoenix, has been dropping for decades. Some 1,500 homes rely on trucked-in water. The City of Phoenix plans to shut off that supply after Dec. 31. In response, the water utility EPCOR is negotiating to build a water-hauling station on Anthem property that would be accessed from Desert Hills Drive. Anthem Community Council is expected to vote on the plan Nov. 15.

Long thought to be set in stone, Phoenix’s Dec. 31 deadline may now be potentially negotiable, if EPCOR strikes a deal but can’t get a hauling station operational by end of year. “The City of Phoenix is assessing and monitoring the situation,” said Stephanie Bracken, spokesperson for Phoenix Water Services Department. “We will make any decisions regarding this, at the appropriate time.”

Meanwhile, rural development continues. To build a subdivision with six or more homes, a developer must prove a 100-year water supply, according to Arizona state law. Up to five homes can be built with no assured water supply. The county, in issuing building permits, has no say in the matter, Gates said.

Drilling a well typically costs several thousand dollars. If a well is successful—and there are no guarantees— more water is drawn from an increasingly depleted local aquifer, according to Frank Corkhill, chief hydrologist at the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).

wells in desert hills az
Many parts of New River and Desert Hills look like this, with permitted wells (the red dots) on the majority of 1-acre plots.

‘Looming Crisis’

Long term, Arizona has “a looming crisis on its hands, and some communities are finding it out sooner than others,” said Julie Elliott, a New River resident and president of the grassroots group New River/Desert Hills Water (formerly No Water—No Life). “I think the state needs to wake up and address this.”

The New River/Desert Hills Water group has sent emails to Gov. Doug Ducey, state legislators and local realtor associations apprising them of the issue. And it has asked the state’s Department of Real Estate to review the subdivision rules “and protect the people of this state,” Elliott said. “They’re on notice that this is an issue out here. It does affect our property values and our ability to sell properties [and the] ability to finance properties.”

The Arizona Department of Real Estate has the right to change the definition of “subdivision,” with the effect of law, said Elliott, a former licensed real estate agent who has worked on water issues for master-planned communities. At the least, she argued, potential homeowners should get a disclosure describing the challenges that come with reliance on groundwater.

In the meantime, “lot-splitting continues unabated,” says Doug Dunham, legislative liaison & ombudsman with Arizona Department of Water Resources. Dunham’s agency has tried to convince the state to change laws to deal with the dwindling water, but powerful lobbyists don’t want to see the change. “Real Estate is a powerful market driver in the state,” he said.

The Arizona Department of Real Estate “has received questions and a complaint related to development activity in the New River area, and the department is currently reviewing this matter,” said ADRE Deputy Commissioner Louis Dettorre. “We cannot speak to the specifics of this review.”

The governor’s senior press secretary, Patrick Ptak, declined to comment on the water versus development challenge, though he said the Governor’s Office is monitoring the issue.

Gates praised the grassroots organizers’ actions but cautioned against pushing too hard to lower the five-house development ceiling. Years ago the limit was three houses, he said, and when residents fought to lower it, the state instead raised it to five. “If you open this can of worms, you never know where it could end up,” he said legislators advised him.

Create a Water District?

While rural residents expressed gratitude to Anthem and EPCOR for the potential helping hand, they aim to take matters into their own hands in the long run.

New River/Desert Hills Water has begun a process to create a “domestic water improvement district,” which would be governed by the county. The entity, which Elliott said is common in Arizona, would get technical assistance and advice from various state agencies. It could apply for funding grants and could negotiate for water with utilities or municipalities.

A water district will take at least six months to launch, and it could not change laws or codes governing development, Elliott said.

A New Town?

Laurie Ricci, a New River resident and president of the New River Incorporation Committee, is researching incorporation of the entire area into a town.

“We are in the first steps of looking at this as an option,” Ricci told In&Out. “If we do become a town we can fix some of the problems we have. One example: “We can also get a CAP [Central Arizona Project] water allocation that we can funnel through either the nearby cities or possibly a water improvement district.”

Gates called incorporation “a difficult process,” but said an incorporated town could require a dedicated water source for new construction.

Incorporation wouldn’t be mutually exclusive of the proposed water district, Ricci said. “They can work hand-in-hand together to create a solution.”


Water Woes: Full Coverage

TIMELINE: Fast-track to Solutions

June 1, 2017 Phoenix notifies water haulers that after Dec. 31 hydrant water can no longer be trucked to rural homes.

Aug. 10 In&Out/North Phoenix News article reveals Phoenix’s planned shut-off, attributed to a city code that forbids hydrants to be sources of potable water.

Sept. 14 In&Out/North Phoenix News analysis shows the aquifer under New River and Desert Hills has been declining for decades and wells are going dry.

Sept. 19 A community meeting of about 150 rural homeowners seeds formation of the grassroots group New River/Desert Hills Water.

Sept. 24 New River/Desert Hills Water holds its first meeting. Within days, county and state officials and EPCOR are engaged in finding solutions.

Oct. 12 Anthem Community Council holds a special meeting to discuss EPCOR’s proposal for a water-hauling station on Anthem property.

Nov. 15 Anthem Community Council expected to vote on EPCOR proposal, which the utility says will take two months to build.

Dec. 31 Planned shut-off date for City of Phoenix water, but the city has now indicated the date might be negotiable.


CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct Laurie Ricci’s affiliation. She is president of the New River Incorporation Committee. She is not a member of New River/Desert Hills Water.

Robert Roy Britt

NoPho resident Robert Roy Britt has written for In&Out publications since its inception in 2005. Britt began his journalism career in New Jersey newspapers in the early 1990s. He later became a science writer and was editor-in-chief of the online media sites Space.com and Live Science. He has written four novels.


Robert Roy Britt on Email

Robert Roy Britt

NoPho resident Robert Roy Britt has written for In&Out publications since its inception in 2005. Britt began his journalism career in New Jersey newspapers in the early 1990s. He later became a science writer and was editor-in-chief of the online media sites Space.com and Live Science. He has written four novels.

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