By Benjamin A. Longbottom.
Water Woes in Rio Verde Foothills. Most of Arizona is experiencing some level of drought. In a wealthy suburb north of Scottsdale, the drought is revealing latent problems associated with decades of poor urban planning. Rio Verde Foothills (“RVF”) grew rapidly out of the desert beginning in the 1980s, relying initially on pumped groundwater for household water and landscape irrigation. Later, when wells ran dry, Scottsdale city officials agreed to deliver water to the suburb on large tanker trucks, charging RVF residents by the gallon. The community grew and developed on the assumption that these deliveries would continue.
On November 1, 2021, however, Scottsdale announced that it would cut off all water deliveries to those living in RVF, effective at the end of 2022. Scottsdale officials cited the current water shortage on the Colorado River and a provision of the City’s Drought Management Plan.
About 700 RVF homes rely on the Scottsdale water deliveries, and the cut-off took many by surprise. Scottsdale officials claim that hauled water was never intended to be a “permanent water solution” and that the City has decided to “take a stance” that “this is [Scottsdale’s] water.” Residents are at a loss for what to do next, but it is clear that the suburb’s recent growth is now completely unsupported by present water supply and infrastructure.
The Land-Water Disconnect. How did RVF find itself in this corner? Arizona law requires that most suburban developers prove they have at least 100 years’ worth of adequate water supply, but this mandate has a glaring loophole that makes places like RVF possible: it does not apply to subdivisions divided into five or fewer lots, so-called “wildcat lots.” (For a fuller discussion of this requirement, and a promising way to supplement it, see my earlier post for this blog.) RVF grew largely as a collection of “wildcat lots,” meaning developers were not required to concern themselves with whether there was enough water to support the growth.
Unfortunately, this is just one manifestation of a larger problem facing the entire Western United States. Western states and cities have consistently failed to consider water when making land-use decisions, especially in the context of urban growth. This is known as the land-water disconnect. It arises from the fact that water supply planning is usually done by local or regional planners, subject to state and federal regulations, while land-use planning is mostly done by local officials. These two groups of policymakers generally do not communicate much with each other, in part because of a lack of education among each group about the others’ activities. This can depress motivation to collaborate and minimize the benefits realized upon collaboration.
The land-water disconnect is a serious problem for water conservation and land-use sustainability because land-use inextricably drives water demand, and vice versa. Sprawling urban growth contributes to greater water losses from leaks and requires far more landscape irrigation, making it harder to predict and manage water demand. By contrast, increasing residential density by a mere 20% can reduce per capita water use by as much as 10%. Luckily, there are easy and affordable ways for cities and states to unify their land- and water-use planning regimes. The Beatles gave us the answer more than fifty years ago: “Come together, right now . . . .”
Integrative Land- and Water-Use Planning
Coming Together. Land- and water-use planners should work together now to make informed and equitable decisions about the best path to safe and sustainable growth. The idea is to link land- and water-use planning through communication and collaboration. RVF’s situation might have been avoided if water planners were simply required to communicate available water supply to land-use planners before development could go forward. This sort of communication can avoid urban growth that is unsupported by sufficient water and prevent water waste associated with unnecessary sprawl.
Beyond communication and collaboration, policymakers should be required to act on what they learn from their counterparts. Many Western states, Arizona included, incorporate promising language and goals into their land and water policies but fail to act on those goals. An easy fix would be to require not just that land- and water-use planners communicate with each other, but also that they meet enforceable targets like reduced water use. Puerto Rico has successfully incorporated something like this into its laws.
Additionally, because much of the land-water disconnect stems from a failure of land- and water-use planners to appreciate the interconnected nature of their work, Arizona should create education programs for policymakers to learn about the connections between land- and water-use. For land- and water-use planners to get the most out of collaborating with each other, they each need to understand the “language” the other is speaking. For a land-use planner, this might include learning about how water providers operate, along with basic water resource planning and water quality protection. For water-use planners, it might include education about zoning rules and other land-use laws.
Policymakers should also include community stakeholders in important land- and water-use planning decisions at all stages. Stakeholder involvement promotes equitable policy outcomes in many contexts and engenders community support for those outcomes. One of the primary complaints by RVF residents, for example, is simply that they felt blindsided by Scottsdale’s decision to cut off water deliveries. In resource management, as in relationships, communication is key.
Benefits. Integrative planning, incorporating the foregoing best practices, has a variety of benefits for water security and general sustainability. Opening a lane of communication between land- and water-use planners will enable them to work together to design efficient, compact development and protect water security while accommodating population and economic growth. Compact development reduces water consumption and requires shorter pipelines, which lose less water to leaks. Lower water demand, from fewer leaks and smaller lots, also means more predictable consumption patterns, enabling policymakers to make better-informed decisions and plan effectively for future water needs.
Challenges. Despite the wide variety of benefits, Arizona and its cities may face a few different challenges in implementing integrative planning into their laws. For instance, cities facing serious water insecurity may be more motivated to integrate their planning processes than a state government with conflicting or different goals. This could be a problem because collaboration cannot, by its terms, be only a one-way street. But local governments can take matters into their own hands by identifying relevant stakeholders and encouraging voluntary collaboration, or by mandating integration via local ordinance.
Suburban growth unsupported by water supply, owing to a failure of policymakers to communicate and collaborate, has backed RVF—and many other cities across the West—into a corner. Though the norm currently is siloed water- and land-use planning, requiring policymakers to collaborate with each other can have a host of water security benefits. This will require broadly rethinking the way policymakers plan for urban growth and water shortages. If Arizona and its cities are up to the challenge, the immensity of the drought problem for urban and suburban residents in one of the fastest-growing states may shrink significantly.