'Breathing room': Buckeye adopts a plan to find more water as city rapidly expands

Joshua Bowling
Arizona Republic
The Sun City Festival community development borders the Central Arizona Project canal in Buckeye, Arizona, on Dec. 11, 2019.

Buckeye leaders recently approved a plan that outlines the city's current water supplies and how much the suburb some 40 miles west of Phoenix needs to acquire to grow sustainably.

Buckeye, the fastest-growing city in the U.S., doesn't have the water it needs to meet its loftiest population projections. It has relied since the mid-1990s on a legal workaround that paved the way for building on the Valley's fringes where there aren't robust water rights. That workaround, relying on finite groundwater, raises concerns among some of the state's water experts. 

The new plan indicates Buckeye relies on more groundwater — the workaround — than previously reported in city documents. But it also lays out potential steps for the city to get the renewable water it needs.

The plan, which the City Council unanimously approved this month, is not a catch-all solution to the environmental challenges the southwest Valley faces. City staffers will work to identify water sources Buckeye can go after in the next two to three years. But that is expected to carry a steep cost.

The plan also recommends that the council begin requiring more of developers. 

The council could require developers to bring their own physical water supply so they aren't as reliant on the workaround. Former Councilman Eric Orsborn, who's running unupposed for mayor, said it's a good idea so Buckeye won't depend as much on the workaround.

The sprawling city needs significantly more water if it's going to some day reach its projected population of some 1.3 million residents.

"Buckeye has water rights that will allow the city to grow significantly over the next few years," said Richard Humphreys of Carollo Engineers, who presented the plan Tuesday. "(This plan) gives the city breathing room."


Buckeye's population exploded, but current water supplies only go so far

Buckeye is quickly trading its family farms and open space for suburban sprawl and master-planned communities.

The city had nearly 7,000 residents in 2000 and more than 80,000 in 2019, according to the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity.

Critics say it hasn't grown sustainably. A 2019 report from Arizona State University's Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute criticized the growth on two fronts:

  • Buckeye currently relies on finite groundwater almost entirely.
  • Groundwater is not always replenished close to where it was taken out of the ground.

Much of the city's development relies on the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which lets developments use nonrenewable groundwater up front and later puts an equal amount of Colorado River underground.

Critics have a key problem with that process: The Colorado River water isn't always put back underground where the groundwater, which takes years to accumulate, was taken out. They worry that could lead to dropping groundwater levels and sinking land.

"It’s not magic water, it’s groundwater," former Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Kathy Ferris said.

Buckeye's plan for the future

The city's new plan lays out how Buckeye officials can piecemeal the water it needs. It also shows the city relies more on the groundwater workaround than city officials previously estimated. 

The plan estimates Buckeye has enough water on hand to grow to 343,000 residents. If the city improves conservation and cuts down on outdoor use, it could support 466,000, the report says. City estimates say Buckeye will have nearly 311,000 residents by 2040. Countywide projections show Buckeye could hit 459,000 residents by 2055.

When the council in December discussed the same water plan, it projected the city's water resources could support 246,000 residents.

That increased estimate does not come from renewable water sources like river water. It comes after the city conducted a more precise count of the groundwater and replenishment from the workaround that Buckeye developments use.

Water comes at high cost

If Buckeye were to go after the main sources of water the plan suggests, it would have to pay at least $610.5 million in up-front cost alone. Annual operating costs could reach from $29.3 million per year to $34.6 million per year, according to the plan.

The city's most recent entire general fund operating budget is $95 million, in comparison.

City leaders haven't publicly discussed a plan to pay for the water.

Some potential water sources in the city's plan include:

  • Continue relying on the groundwater replenishment district. Supply: 34,750 acre-feet per year.
  • Import groundwater from the Harquahala groundwater basin. Supply: 84,776 acre-feet per year. Cost: $196.5 million one-time cost and $8.1 million annual operating costs.
  • Purchase non-Indian agriculture water from Central Arizona Project as it's available. Supply: 1,950 acre-feet per year. Cost: $40.7 million one-time cost and $1.1 million in annual operating costs.
  • Treat and reuse wastewater as potable water. Supply: 26,600 acre-feet per year. Cost: $190.6 million one-time cost and $12.7 million in annual operating costs.
  • Capture water that seeps up from the ground in a Buckeye waterlogged area near the Gila River. Supply: 30,000 acre-feet per year. Cost: $182.7 million one-time cost and $7.4 million to $12.7 million annual operating costs.
  • Reduce outdoor use by encouraging desert landscaping and possibly restricting landscaping. Supply: 35,000 acre-feet per year.
  • Use untreated water for outdoor use, like irrigation, in central Buckeye. Supply: 10,000 acre-feet per year.

Ferris said she applauds the plan for urging Buckeye to obtain its own renewable sources of water, instead of continuing to rely on groundwater through the replenishment district.

Beyond investing in new water resources, the plan recommends requiring developers to bring a physical source of water for new developments, "instead of relying only" on the groundwater workaround.

Such a move could save homeowners money, Ferris said.

When someone buys a home in Buckeye, they pay for the groundwater replenishment district workaround on their annual property tax. The Arizona Republic found some residents can pay upward of $166, depending on how much water their home receives.

"If a city doesn’t have water and doesn’t have the resources to go out and acquire it and a developer wants to build a master-planned community, that should be their responsibility," Ferris said. "Rather than passing the buck to homeowners."

Growing with groundwater: 'It's just not sustainable'

Consultants are urging Buckeye leaders go after more sustainable sources than continuing to rely on groundwater, which isn't renewable like river water that ebbs and flows with wet winters and intense drought.

Humphreys, the consultant who presented the plan to the council, said he's been trying to encourage the city leaders to not let developers solely rely on groundwater. "You should take the sustainable approach with surface water," he told The Republic.

Mayor Jackie Meck through a city spokeswoman said the plan is a "road map to the city's future" and "shows we are thinking ahead to ensure Buckeye is sustainable now and going forward."

Orsborn, running unopposed to become the city's next mayor, said the plan gives Buckeye a good path toward growing sustainably. The catch is that other cities and utilities, with deeper pockets, are eyeing the same sources of water.

"I think it’s a really good start," he said. "Water's a very hot commodity. Some of that stuff we probably need to react quick on, otherwise it’s going to be purchased by other growing cities or entities."

Getting more renewable water sources, such as Colorado River water or treated wastewater, is a key step forward so Buckeye will have more control over it, Orsborn said.

The groundwater replenishment district "is a big, big part of our growth going forward," he said. "(But) I think the more water we control, the better control we have of our own destiny."

Reach reporter Joshua Bowling at jbowling@azcentral.com or 602-444-8138. Follow him on Twitter @MrJoshuaBowling.