Here's why Arizona says it can keep growing despite historic megadrought
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America's fifth-largest city continues to boom despite a crippling drought in the southwest. Phoenix and its suburbs are increasingly relying on groundwater to support its growth as Arizona has endured more cuts in Colorado River water than any state in the basin. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, there are new questions over how long the growth can last.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Drive the clogged I-10 freeway through Phoenix's West Valley, and you'd hardly know the Southwest is as dry as it's been in 1,200 years. I'm passing water-gulping data centers, huge and growing suburban master planned communities with names like Teravalis and Prasada.
This two-lane highway cutting through farms is being widened. Across the road, I see a new homes coming soon sign. Join the VIP interest list.
In nearby Buckeye's city hall, a bright-red mural welcomes you to Arizona's biggest opportunity. And I'm greeted by the friendly mayor, Eric Orsborn.
ERIC ORSBORN: In 2000, we're 6,500 in population. And we are north of 110,000 in population today.
SIEGLER: Orsborn also owns a construction company. He says his city's master plan has room for some 300,000 more residents in the coming decades with growth to the south, the west and north, a staggering 640 square miles of open land.
ORSBORN: So for perspective, city of Phoenix is about 518 square miles. So we have this massive footprint to grow into.
SIEGLER: Another Phoenix out here? Where's the water? Orsborn says they're working aggressively to line up future water supplies, likely to be imported in, and conserve and reuse more. He says Buckeye needs to be ready.
ORSBORN: I think a lot of people want to move here. Part of it is the regulation, the tax, how we do business in Arizona. Part of it is the open opportunity that's here.
SIEGLER: But there's been a small damper on all the opportunity talk lately. Arizona's new governor, Katie Hobbs, released a state report she says was hidden by her predecessor, Doug Ducey. It shows that all the groundwater in the West Valley is already spoken for.
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KATIE HOBBS: I just think there was a lack of real honesty with the people of Arizona about the situation we're in.
SIEGLER: So is Phoenix facing some sort of reckoning over growth? Not yet clear. In Buckeye, Mayor Eric Orsborn welcomed that groundwater report because he says it helps his city plan better for its future.
ORSBORN: Some of this stuff takes a very long time to develop. And I don't think we want to shut off all of the growth, trying to figure out the solution for all of the growth. We can do this in an incremental approach.
SIEGLER: And the fact is Phoenix and most of its suburbs have gotten really good at using a lot less water, even as their populations exploded. Most pump a lot of Colorado River water into the aquifers, where they've stored it for years. West Valley suburbs have also spent millions on conservation and recycling. The city of Peoria's water adviser, Brett Fleck, told me that they've been trying to wean themselves off the river for years.
BRETT FLECK: When I see these headlines, I think, yeah, if we continue on the path we're on, there might be an ecological disaster. There might be a real problem. And it's scary. It's scary to think about, but we're trying to sort of change the direction that we're headed in so that those things don't happen.
SIEGLER: Some people are even talking about a rescue plan to build a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez and pipe water across Mexico to here. And it's not like the Hobbs groundwater report stopped new construction, either.
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SIEGLER: Most developers already had approval based on showing they have a hundred-year water supply lined up. But a lot of these rules are based on estimates, some written in cooler times when most people didn't believe the Colorado River might actually run dry. Kathy Ferris is a former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
KATHY FERRIS: For a long time, a lot of those master planned community developers just thought, well, we'll get to be able to do this. We'll get to be able to use this groundwater. And you know what? They can't because there's not enough of it. And it's already overallocated.
SIEGLER: Overpromised, just like the Colorado River. Ferris helped write Arizona's landmark Groundwater Management Act in 1980. The governor now wants to expand it and modernize it, which Ferris finds encouraging.
FERRIS: We cannot just grow anywhere and everywhere and as much as we want and still sustain every kind of economy and economic growth that we want. We have to make choices.
SIEGLER: A cautionary tale of uncontrolled development in a desert lies north of the wealthy Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.
If I drove much farther here, I thought I was going to hit Utah.
JOHN HORNEWER: Yeah.
SIEGLER: John Hornewer owns a water-hauling company in Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated sliver of Maricopa County. Most people lived off hauled water from Scottsdale until that city cut them off, citing its shrinking Colorado River deliveries.
HORNEWER: You know what? When Scottsdale cut us off, that's a reality check.
SIEGLER: And yet even on his country road, lots are still for sale, and even some houses are being built. Hornewer, his graying, blond, long hair pulled back, is standing next to his silver delivery tank truck, squinting in the bright sun. He looks tired and stressed.
HORNEWER: In my personal opinion, we're living way outside of our means. Right now, this drought - we have to get a handle on the true gravity of this drought and may have to make some serious adjustments. You know, to build when you don't have water just doesn't make sense.
SIEGLER: Scottsdale recently said it would resume some water deliveries up here, but Hornewer knows it's not a permanent solution. For now, he's driving sometimes 3 to 4 hours one way, just to find a place to buy water to fill his trucks. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Phoenix.
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