No CAWS for Concern: Arizona Is Not Running Out of Water

By Seth Young. 

Is Arizona running out of water?  Based on recent headlines about Arizona, a fair guess would be true.  Over the past year, two incidents have fueled the misconception that Arizona is running out of water: 1) the moratorium on certain permits to build in the Phoenix area because of a groundwater shortage and 2) the Rio Verde water crisis.  As a direct result, a growing sentiment has emerged that life in the Sonoran Desert is unsustainable, and it is “concerning” that Americans have attempted to settle the area. Nevertheless, a closer look at both issues reveals that Arizona is not running out of water but is encountering the age-old pitfall of poor planning.

Arizona Water Law From 34,000 Feet

Arizona has a remarkably well-adapted legal regime for its water supply. Arizona has designated multiple regions across the state as Active Management Areas (“AMAs”).  To subdivide land within these AMAs, the developer must obtain a Certificate of Assured Water Supply (“CAWS”).  Obtaining a CAWS requires the developer to demonstrate that the subdivision will have legal, physical, and continuous access to a 100-year supply of water coming from any source.  Not surprisingly, obtaining a CAWS is expensive, but without a CAWS, a developer may not record the subdivided plots with the county recorder.  This inability to record the land is important because any sensible buyer will refuse to buy land without a recorded title making.

So What Happened in Rio Verde?

Rio Verde is a twenty square mile section of land north of Scottsdale within the Phoenix AMA with a population of roughly 2,300.  When developers split up land in the Rio Verde area, they wanted to avoid the expensive process of acquiring a CAWS.  Because subdivided land in Arizona is six or more parcels that are each less than 36 acres in size, developers specifically broke down large swaths of land into parcels that fit just outside the legal definition to create something known as a “wildcat subdivision.”  Accordingly, these wildcat subdivisions were exempted from needing to obtain CAWS.  As a result, land in the Rio Verde area lacks the guarantee of a 100-year water supply.  Additionally, homebuyers purchased this land without ensuring that their homes had guaranteed access to the most important thing required to live: water.

This greedy planning foreseeably led to an insufficient water supply for the area.  To remedy this, Rio Verde purchased water from Scottdale and trucked the water in.  Realizing that it may soon need this water for itself, Scottsdale repeatedly informed Rio Verde it would eventually cease selling the area water.  In fact, Scottsdale warned Rio Verde for over eight years that ending the sale of water was a possibility.  Having given plenty of notice, Scottsdale stopped selling water to Rio Verde on January 1, 2023, effectively cutting off the area’s water supply.  Because of a lack of municipal responsibility, Rio Verde did little to prepare for losing access to Scottsdale’s water. 

While an uninformed observer may interpret this incident to mean Arizona is running out of water, a deeper investigation reveals the cause to be poor planning.  Developers took the easy way out and developed residential land without a proper water supply; buyers purchased this land without looking into the land’s water supply; and Rio Verde leaders failed to come up with an alternative water supply after Scottsdale gave them notice it was going to stop selling water.  Luckily, the state government stepped in and negotiated a deal between Rio Verde, a water utility, and Scottsdale to resume water service to the area.  Had Rio Verde developers taken the proper steps to acquire CAWS for the area, this entire crisis would have never occurred.  

What About This Moratorium on Building Because of a Groundwater Shortage?

This past summer, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs halted issuance of new CAWS for subdivisions that rely on groundwater in the Phoenix AMA.  Accordingly, new growth in the Phoenix suburbs of Queen Creek and Buckeye came screeching to a halt as these communities rely solely on groundwater.  The press was quick to conclude that Arizona was running out of water and that trying to develop in Arizona was a mistake from the beginning.  This is simply not the case.  

First, all issued CAWS are unaffected by this moratorium, meaning that 80,000 currently-developing lots are free to continue moving forward.  Second, no part of the Phoenix AMA is required to cut back its water use because of the moratorium.  Third, the State is still issuing CAWS that are not groundwater-reliant.  Accordingly, developers who can obtain diversified water supplies from existing water utilities, the Central Arizona Project, or the Salt River Project can acquire a CAWS.  Fourth, the moratorium ensures Arizona does not run out of water.  The moratorium stops developers from taking groundwater because pumping more could threaten the 100-years of available water guaranteed by all prior CAWS.  The halt on CAWS in certain outlying areas therefore demonstrates that Arizona is taking proactive measures to prevent water depletion, rather than “running out”.

Had developers properly planned their subdivision expansions based on long-term water availability, they would have concluded that building subdivisions that solely rely upon an insufficient groundwater supply was not viable.  Arizona’s groundwater regime is based upon conservation and the long-term goal of total sustainability.  Groundwater takes significant time to recharge.  Thus, developers should have foreseen that mass residential development could not survive indefinitely on just groundwater.  Long-term growth rests upon a diversified water supply and Queen Creek and Buckeye currently lack such infrastructure.  With a proper focus on sustainability, Arizona can continue to grow without running out of water; developers just need to keep sustainability top of mind from the beginning.

What Does the Future of Arizona Water Policy Look Like?  

The recent Rio Verde Water crisis and moratorium on groundwater CAWS in the Phoenix AMA demonstrate developers’ failure to properly plan.  This does not mean that Arizona is running out of water or that the Sonoran Desert is uninhabitable.  Arizona’s government has long understood that water is a precious resource.  That is the reason why Arizona enforces a long-term water-centric policy when developing new subdivisions.  

Development in the future needs to return to these humble roots.  Expanding access to diversified water supplies is a great start.  Such changes are not going to be easy, but Arizona is up to the challenge.  Developers and homebuyers alike must continue to educate themselves about the importance of water in Arizona’s future before making hasty development decisions.  Arizona has long supported human life and can continue to do so far into the future so long as proper foresight and planning regarding water supply remain at the forefront of development.

"Colorado River, Marble Canyon" by Gonzo fan2007 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.