A new model could reveal major water trouble for Buckeye. Release it now

Buckeye has approved multiple plans to build homes on pristine desert land without a history of water use.
Buckeye has approved multiple plans to build homes on pristine desert land without a history of water use.

In the far west side of the Valley of the Sun – flanking what opponents once dubbed the “road to nowhere” – the City of Buckeye has approved 27 master planned communities and two planning areas that would grow Buckeye’s population by 872,000 people.

Nearly all this development would be located on pristine desert land without a history of water use. And if developers get their way and are allowed to move forward, the massive new growth they’re proposing would seriously threaten the entire region’s groundwater.

Not only is our groundwater finite and rapidly decreasing, but warning signs from new groundwater models indicate that there is not enough of it to meet the needs of the prospective homeowners in these developments indefinitely.

As the City of Buckeye’s own Water Resources Master Plan warns, “Without a change in direction, the physical groundwater supply underneath Buckeye will decrease and will not be sustainable.”

Growth on groundwater could be 'done'

The Arizona Department of Water Resources is responsible for determining whether there is a 100-year “assured” water supply for all new subdivisions in the state’s most populated areas, known as active management areas. The purpose of this requirement is to protect homeowners from seeing their taps run dry.

In a similar situation, after issuing scores of assured water supply determinations in the Pinal active management area, the department concluded in 2019 that there was considerably less groundwater in the Pinal area than was previously thought. The department’s newer groundwater model showed that the supply was, in fact, short by more than 8 million acre-feet (an acre-foot can serve three single-family households for a year).

Based on that updated information, the department’s director, Tom Buschatzke, declared, “The days of utilizing native groundwater for development in Pinal are over, it’s done.” The regrettable result of the prior overestimate of groundwater is that proposed subdivisions in the Pinal area are now stranded as their developers look for alternative water supplies.

Unless measures are taken to protect the West Valley from the massive overdevelopment that is on the table right now, the Buckeye area will face a similar fate.

Public deserves to read these findings

Hoping to prevent that, the department developed a more sophisticated groundwater model for the Hassayampa Groundwater Subbasin where the proposed master planned communities would be located.

In a preview of what the new model shows, the department issued “deficiency” letters for two subdivisions in the Sun City Festival and Festival Ranch developments. The June 2021 letters stated that the department is finalizing its groundwater model and report and “has information indicating the proposed subdivision’s estimated groundwater demand for 100 years is likely not met when considered with other existing uses and approved demands in the area.”

A year and a half after writing these letters, the department has had ample time to complete its Hassayampa Subbasin model and report. But despite the huge importance of this study, the department’s findings have yet to be published and remain unavailable to the public.

This is disconcerting for several reasons, not the least of which is the public’s right to know the truth before it’s too late. The department’s modeling efforts were funded with taxpayer dollars and every citizen of this state should have access to this important information, especially in this time of shortages and over-allocation of our water supplies.

Gov. Hobbs must release the model now

Construction has already begun on the Hassayampa Subbasin master planned community previously known as Douglas Ranch. Now called Teravalis, this enormous project would encompass 37,000 acres and include 100,000 homes and 300,000 residents. Its developer, the Howard Hughes Corp., is moving forward with its first subdivision on 3,000 acres even though the water supplies for the entire Teravalis community are doubtful.

The State of Arizona is facing a water crisis and it is time for full transparency. As one of her first acts, Gov. Katie Hobbs should direct the Department of Water Resources to immediately release the Hassayampa Subbasin groundwater model and report to the public so the truth can guide our water decisions as we move forward.

Kathleen Ferris is a former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and a senior research fellow at ASU's Kyl Center for Water Policy. Reach her at kathleenferris22@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Katie Hobbs must release Buckeye's groundwater model now