When a sprawling suburban development in the Southwest loses its water supply due to drought

On the edges of the Phoenix metropolitan region, one recently constructed suburban development lost its access to water:

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Joe McCue thought he had found a desert paradise when he bought one of the new stucco houses sprouting in the granite foothills of Rio Verde, Ariz. There were good schools, mountain views and cactus-spangled hiking trails out the back door.

Then the water got cut off.

Earlier this month, the community’s longtime water supplier, the neighboring city of Scottsdale, turned off the tap for Rio Verde Foothills, blaming a grinding drought that is threatening the future of the West. Scottsdale said it had to focus on conserving water for its own residents, and could no longer sell water to roughly 500 to 700 homes — or around 1,000 people. That meant the unincorporated swath of $500,000 stucco houses, mansions and horse ranches outside Scottsdale’s borders would have to fend for itself and buy water from other suppliers — if homeowners could find them, and afford to pay much higher prices…

Water experts say Rio Verde Foothills’ situation is unusually dire, but it offers a glimpse of the bitter fights and hard choices facing 40 million people across the West who rely on the Colorado River for the means to take showers, irrigate crops, or run data centers and fracking rigs.

Given conditions in the West and Southwest, this could become more common for suburban areas. See earlier posts here and here.

One key from the article: when you move into a home, is the water supply guaranteed (as much as possible)? It sounds like there was an agreement to sell water to this new development. If you have such agreements or live in unincorporated areas or depend on other water sources, will they always be there?

Water is typically one of the lower concerns of those moving to the suburbs. It is assumed to be there. There might be the occasional problem with pipes, particularly in older homes, but the water should keep flowing. Other infrastructure concerns tend to take precedence; are there enough roads for new residents? Schools?

Without cheap water, it is harder to live the suburban life. As the article notes, how does one wash laundry or dishes with limited or really expensive water? Flushing toilets? This does not even get close to beloved amenities, like swimming pools.

What would a lack of water and power from the Colorado River do to sprawl?

The suburban sprawl in the United States depends on the availability of water and power, among other resources. So what happens if the Colorado River, a source of water and power for numerous people, no longer can supply either?

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Such an outcome — known as a “minimum power pool” — was once unfathomable here. Now, the federal government projects that day could come as soon as July.

Worse, officials warn, is the remote possibility of an even more catastrophic event. That is if the water level falls all the way to the lowest holes, so only small amounts could pass through the dam. Such a scenario — called “dead pool” — would transform Glen Canyon Dam from something that regulates an artery of national importance into a hulking concrete plug corking the Colorado River…

As the water has receded, so has the ability to produce power at Glen Canyon, as less pressure from the lake pushes the turbines. The dam already generates about 40 percent less power than what has been committed to customers, which includes dozens of Native American tribes, nonprofit rural electric cooperatives, military bases, and small cities and towns across several southwestern states. These customers would be responsible for buying power on the open market in the event Glen Canyon could not generate, potentially driving up rates dramatically.

The standard rate paid for Glen Canyon’s low-cost power is $30 per megawatt hour. On the open market, these customers last summer faced prices as high as $1,000 per megawatt hour, said Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association.

The issue of water has already increased concerns about development in the Southwest. A landscape full of single-family homes, lawns, lots of roads, and other suburban features requires a lot of water. Can life in sprawl not require as much water or is there a point where no more sprawl is just not possible? Then add in the issue of power. This includes transmission lines, homes, and other structures. Can the existing sprawl even be maintained with less electricity and water?

It also worth paying attention to how these changes with the Colorado River have ripple effects elsewhere. If as much water is not available, where can water come from? I imagine those around the Great Lakes have thoughts. If not as much power is generated, is there electricity capacity elsewhere? How much can be done short-term to shore things up while also considering long-term consequences?

More broadly, what might stop American sprawl? Not having water or power would be a powerful incentive. Others have speculated about a certain price of gas. Perhaps cultural beliefs about the suburban good life change. Or there might be something unforeseen. The conditions with the Colorado River might just offer a glimpse into what happens when sprawl has to stop.

The water needed to keep the grass green and trees alive at California mansions

Due to water shortages and water restrictions in California, we now know how much water some celebrities are using for their homes and grounds:

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Now, the celebrities are among the 20,000 residents in the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District – that holds jurisdiction in the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and Westlake Village – forced to abide by water restrictions with the installation of restrictive devices that will reduce the amount of water used during showers and for sprinklers.

Amid the relentless drought, the water district moved to ‘Stage 3’ restrictions on June 1 to reduce water consumption by at least 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Kim Kardashian is one of the A-list celebrities that has received notice to limit the water usage at her Hidden Hills home and her fixer-upper property she purchased next store – after she exceeded water use by about 232,000 gallons in June…

Rocky Balboa actor Stallone and his model wife, Jennifer Flavin, reportedly went over their water budget at their Hidden Hills home by about 533 percent, or 230,000 gallons, in June. The couple used 195,000 gallons of excess water in May…

Meanwhile, NBA star Wade also received a notice that he exceeded his water limit by 90,000 gallons or 1,400 percent in June. While Wade’s water usage is an improvement since May, it’s still more than most users.

While more than just celebrities have received these notices, the water figures here are staggering. To keep a large house and property going, they have exceeded their allotted use by a lot of water. If this does not contribute to the idea that a lush green lawn and landscape is a status symbol, I do not know what does.

On the flip side, imagine a major celebrity eschewing the green lawn and garden-filled property for a property with a lot fewer water needs. Could images of a celebrity yard of drought resistant and native plants help turn the tide against this kind of water usage? Or, a major social media influencer? Overcoming decades of the association between homeownership and status with a green lawn is going to be hard to overcome.

(Consider this a companion post to the one yesterday about California property owners getting money to tear out their grass lawns.)

Paying California property owners to tear up their grass lawns

A good number of property owners in California can receive money to remove grass:

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The largest district in the state, the Metropolitan Water District serving 19 million people in Southern California, is paying $2 per square foot of grass pulled out. Water district customer cities and agencies can add more…

The Metropolitan Water District told CNN the number of requests for grass removal rebates jumped four times in July, to 1,172 applications…

The horrific drought led Larry Romanoff to combat climate change by ripping out his grass and replacing it with cactuses and decorative stones. Romanoff will collect $10,500, a whopping $6 per square foot of lawn removed from his desert home…

The Coachella Valley Water District and its customer, the city of Rancho Mirage, are each paying Romanoff $3 per square foot of lawn torn out…

The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center estimated for CNN nearly 50% of the 409 water agencies in California are offering some sort of turf removal rebate, both residential and commercial.

Paying property owners now will presumably pay off in the long run as it reduces water use.

Given the water shortages facing California and other Western states, how much money will be allocated to such programs and how many homeowners will go for this? Getting rid of the grass lawn may lead to fewer maintenance needs. But, the grass lawn is such a key part of both the image and the mystique of the single-family home. It might be harder for many to envision a property of rocks and cacti or more native and drought-resistance plants.

Fighting for water in Southwest subdivisions

Suburbanites in the Southwest are looking to secure water:

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As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarminly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thin.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona…

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it – you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It’s wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.'”…

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

Some residents came to believe that the best long-term solution for the hauled-water homes was to form a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID. The DWID, as a political subdivision, would be able to buy land to extract water from one of the few aquifers in Arizona that still had excess capacity for sale. A DWID could also get funding, or apply for grants, to eventually build water-treatment infrastructure for the area.

But not everyone in the Foothills wanted their neighbors to form a new government entity. Rumors spread on Facebook, claiming that the DWID was a power grab. People who had once acted as if worries about water scarcity were overblown began imagining their own elaborate worst-case scenarios: What if the DWID imposed taxes, or used the power of eminent domain to seize non-members’ wells, or put liens on people’s houses? What was next, an H.O.A.? “They have the power to condemn, whether they claim they’re going to use it or not,” Christy Jackman, the DWID’s most vocal opponent, told me. “They do have the power to put in streetlights, to pave areas. So here’s this little group, and they’ll have those powers.” The pro-DWID faction grew frustrated that their neighbors, many of whom had wells, were blocking their ability to secure water for themselves. “It’s the haves and the have-nots,” Nabity said. “Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”

The suburban sprawl of the American Dream assumes there is cheap, accessible water for the new homes. Few residents would even think about water not being available unless there are some unusual circumstances.

So what then happens to sprawling subdivisions when water is hard to obtain? The article above discussed multiple solutions that either do not work well when a whole region has limited water or when they run up against the preferences of suburbanites.

Since having water is essential for life, including in the suburbs, it will be interesting to see what solutions are reached. One solution – not building sprawling communities – does not seem like a viable option since there are many people who want to live in such settings and Americans have constructed such developments for decades.

The scale of agriculture in California

A story about recharging aquifers in California to help beat droughts and high water usage includes this summary of how much food California produces:

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The stakes are high: California grows more than a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts eaten in the United States, dominating production of artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, dates, grapes, garlic, olives, plums, peaches, walnuts, pistachios, lemons, sweet rice, and lettuce. The Central Valley is America’s agricultural heartland, crucially important to the state’s economy and the groceries of the nation. More wine grapes are grown there than in California’s wine country, more almonds than anywhere else on earth. There are more than a quarter of a million acres devoted to tomatoes, which when plucked, weighed, canned, and shipped add up to around a third of all the processed tomato stuff eaten worldwide. And that’s not to mention all the region’s livestock—chickens, pigs, cows.

When I go to the grocery store, I am not thinking about what goes into all of the food there and instead just enjoy the many options I have within and across stores. When I have a little more time to consider the process, two thoughts come to mind:

  1. The amazing ability for humans to produce this amount of food from this amount of land. I know California is a big state and a lot of people live there and it is still astounding how much food is produced.
  2. The complexity to pull this all off plus the burden on the natural systems that make this all possible. If one piece gets out of whack or the climate changes or human patterns change, the whole system needs to adjust.

It will take significant work to keep the system going and the food growing. While many dystopian works hint at the trouble that would come when normal food systems are disrupted, there would be serious problems if California cannot produce food in the way it does now.

Water shortage hits the Colorado River and the agreement governing water distribution dates back to 1922

Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:

The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.

The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…

Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.

Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.

Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.

Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?

What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.

Halting new development out West due to lack of water

Drought conditions in Utah and other Western states means communities are rethinking development:

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So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West…

Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California…

Developers in a dry stretch of desert sprawl between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years’ of water to get approvals to build new homes. But extensive groundwater pumping — mostly for agriculture — has left the area with little water for future development.

Many developers see a need to find new sources of water. “Water will be and should be — as it relates to our arid Southwest — the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, the vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure water supply, obviously development shouldn’t happen.”

Critics of sprawl have discussed this for decades: new subdivisions and development in arid areas taps already precious water supplies. It is not just about drinking water; it includes the water used for lawns, agriculture, parks, and other uses that come with expanding populations.

As the article notes, numerous communities are trying to encourage homeowners and residents to use less water. Replace lawns. Limit watering. Use greywater. Some have argued that water in the United States is too cheap, encouraging more use.

But, simply having more people and business might be the problem. If drought conditions continue, it will be worth watching how development – often assumed to be necessary for a good community – is treated.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

A few fake LA lawns watered as CA drought continues

The lawn may be so culturally powerful that fake lawns need to be watered:

But a CBS Los Angeles investigation found the water has not stopped flowing outside DWP buildings. Rather, the DWP has installed sprinklers to soak its fake grass for minutes at a time…

On a recent Thursday morning, sprinklers ran for six minutes, soaking fake grass outside the South LA substation. Even an area completely devoid of grass — real or fake — was inundated by water from sprinklers.

The excess water ran down the sidewalk and toward the street in an apparent violation of city code stating, “No customer of the Department shall use water in a manner that causes or allows excess or continuous water flow or runoff onto an adjoining sidewalk, driveway, street, gutter or ditch.” Such runoff is prohibited even for recycled “gray” water.

I realize that this story appears to be driven less by concern for water supplies – which are an ongoing issue in California – and more about neighbors expressing anger that they have to conserve water lest they be fined while the city appears to be wasting it. In other words: big government should follow its own rules. This could be a microcosm of national politics.

Yet, could there be a good reason for watering the fake lawn?

“We’re rinsing the grass to make it more sanitary,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP…

“We’re really just trying to wash out dog pee,” he said.

So it is dogs that utilize the fake lawn. Who knew that even replacement lawns need so much regular maintenance due to regular use. (Some need to be painted.) And getting people to stop their dogs from using the replacement lawn may be difficult.

Perhaps a solution here is to get rid of the fake lawn entirely. A common sight in recent years in California is to use lawns replaced with other features like drought resistant plants or stones. There was even a rebate program implemented for this as the state aimed to replace a lot of turf.

One takeaway to this story: it is hard for Americans to get rid of lawns as well as reactions to their use and maintenance.