Where will water come from for the massive, Flagstaff-sized community planned for Buckeye?

A massive community about to get underway in the nation's fastest-growing city raises the question: Where will the water come from? 

Buckeye leaders approved Douglas Ranch, a master-planned community roughly the geographic size of Flagstaff that would quadruple the city's population, nearly 20 years ago. 

That plan calls for the development to rely on groundwater, a resource state water experts say has been so dangerously depleted that Arizona's water future is in jeopardy.

But before large-scale construction can get underway at Douglas Ranch, the developer by law must prove to the state water department that it has enough water to serve future residents. 

A new model the water department is building to evaluate groundwater levels in the West Valley, however, could spell trouble for the 36,000-acre development on Buckeye's westernmost edge. 

After the department updated groundwater modeling in Pinal County in 2019, data showed more water had been pumped than expected and the agency has since halted groundwater-dependent development there. 

Now, the department is updating its groundwater assessments in Buckeye, too. 

Already, the agency has halted further development at Sun City Festival and Festival Ranch near the proposed Douglas Ranch community, saying new evidence from the model may suggest inadequate groundwater, according to documents from the Arizona Department of Water Resources. 

The Sun City Festival community development borders a canal in Buckeye, Arizona on Dec. 11, 2019.

It is unclear how the new model will impact the entirety of Douglas Ranch. So far, the developer has only successfully proven it has enough water for 3,000 acres or less than 10% of the planned community. It has not yet sought state approval for the remaining acres.

City officials lauded the development as a win for Buckeye, despite laying out a water resources master plan last year that calls for the city and developers to stop relying predominantly on groundwater.

The city has made little progress in implementing substantive parts of the plan that was approved in April 2020. 

Douglas Ranch's water plans 

Representatives from national real estate developer Howard Hughes Corporation, which recently purchased the majority of Douglas Ranch from Phoenix- and Scottsdale-based developers JDM Partners and El Dorado Holdings for $600 million, declined an interview with The Arizona Republic about the community's water usage. 

A spokesperson from the company instead issued a statement that said the community will rely on "groundwater from an aquifer directly beneath the property." 

Douglas Ranch so far has only sought and received a certificate of assured water supply from the Arizona Department of Water Resources to develop the 3,000-acre Trillium village, which will need 4,200 acre-feet of water annually for its residents. 

But some 300,000 residents are expected to eventually live at Douglas Ranch between Jomax Road on the north and Cactus and Thunderbird roads on the south, 298th Avenue on the east and 379th avenue on the west. 

The community will require nearly 54,000 acre-feet of water per year, according to documents from the state water department. 

It will acquire most of that by pumping groundwater from the Hassayampa subbasin, according to a masterplan agreement passed by Buckeye's Town Council in 2002.  

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The Hassayampa subbasin collects water underground across 1,200 square miles in western Buckeye and unincorporated Maricopa County.

By comparison, Buckeye's entire groundwater demand in 2018 was 11,100 acre-feet, according to the city's 2020 Water Resources Master Plan

City spokesperson Annie DeChance said the nearly 20-year-old agreement, last updated in 2009, still stands.

Future water supplies could come from the Central Arizona Project canal to the south of the property if the developer were to acquire an allocation, though it would be unlikely, the master plan agreement says.

A Howard Hughes spokesperson told The Republic via email the development would also "integrate water conservation measures" and "implement filtering and recharging measures to minimize the impact on the groundwater."

The developer plans to build a wastewater reclamation facility and recharge facility to replenish water pumped from the Hassayampa subbasin. The facilities would be owned and operated by the city, which agreed to provide water and wastewater services, according to the master plan agreement.

The wastewater would be treated at the facility and used for community irrigation and potential groundwater recharge.   

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Before the shovel can hit the sand, Douglas Ranch will need to acquire a Certificate of Assured Water Supply from the Arizona Department of Water Resources. 

The certificate, seen as a safeguard for consumers, requires developers to show the area has enough water to serve the expected number of residents for at least 100 years. 

The developer also must meet six other criteria: 

  • continuous water availability.
  • legal water availability.
  • water quality.
  • financial capability.
  • consistency with management plan.
  • consistency with management goal.

Failure to meet one of the seven criteria can be grounds for the state water department to deny an application. The certificate process stems from the 1980 Groundwater Management Act when the state Legislature regulated groundwater pumping to preserve Arizona’s supply.

But as the Valley grew, developments in municipalities that didn’t have Colorado River allocations were left out. 

The Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), created in 1993 by the state Legislature as a workaround to the assured water supply rules, was established to serve as a mechanism to recharge an equal amount of excess, or unallocated, Colorado River water back underground to make up for water that had been pumped.

Developers could then use groundwater by enrolling in CAGRD to satisfy the state’s 100-year supply requirement.

Douglas Ranch will "likely" enroll in the CAGRD, according to the master plan agreement.

Homeowners in Douglas Ranch would pay additional fees, tacked onto annual property taxes, for the membership. Some residents in Buckeye's Sundance community have paid nearly $175 annually in CAGRD dues

But Kathleen Ferris, who helped craft the state's 1980 groundwater rules and was the former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said reliance on the CAGRD work-around has gone too far. 

Ferris said water experts never anticipated that CAGRD would replenish such large quantities of groundwater. 

The problem is pumping groundwater “takes the water away from the crevices, pores and the cracks under the Earth and there's nothing to hold them open anymore, so the land subsides,” she said. 

CAGRD has three years to recharge the water from when it’s pumped, according to Ferris, but it's not required to replenish water in the same location it was withdrawn.

“It's just been a compounding of problems over the years and an increasingly difficult situation where there is a lot of growth on desert land and a lot of assumption that CAGRD will be able to replenish all this water that's pumped,” Ferris said. 

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Can Douglas Ranch really build a recharge facility? 

Douglas Ranch’s proposed recharge facility could address concerns about replenishing water near the Hassayampa subbasin, but experts say there are myriad factors that go into making a location ideal for water recharge. 

“It's not always conducive to put (in) a recharge facility just any place,” said Laura Grignano, manager of CAGRD. Plus, it’s a lengthy and costly process. 

A developer needs to obtain the correct permits from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to show there is a hydrological capability to hold water and no unreasonable harm would come to existing water users. 

Plus, a recharge facility is just part of the equation. 

If Douglas Ranch were successful in obtaining permits to build the facility, Ferris said it won't necessarily “reduce the CAGRD obligation to replenish the groundwater that is pumped to serve that development.”

In other words, the facility still has to acquire water from somewhere to recharge into the ground, and Ferris is skeptical CAGRD will be able to meet the demand.

"Competition, anxiety over water transfers, megadrought and climate change limit available supplies," Ferris and Sarah Porter from Arizona State University's Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute wrote in 2021. "It is extremely doubtful that CAGRD will be able to acquire the water necessary to replenish all of the groundwater for all of the proposed master-planned communities.”

Douglas Ranch’s 2002 agreement outlines a process in which residential effluent would be treated and recharged, but it's unclear how long it would take to accumulate to make a substantial difference.

New groundwater projections could threaten Douglas Ranch 

It is unclear when Howard Hughes Corporation will seek approval from the state for the bulk of Douglas Ranch. 

It has an analysis from the department that says there are about 24,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer available to the development. Douglas Ranch can use the analysis, issued by the state water department, in its certificate application to prove the groundwater exists, but an analysis is not a water right and does not guarantee approval. 

The analysis, first issued in 2004 and renewed in 2011 and 2018, expires in 2024.

The development had a second conditional analysis for another 26,000 acre-feet of water that was issued in 2009, but it expired in 2020 after failing to meet the department's requirement to prove a physical supply of groundwater existed.  

State water department officials declined to comment on whether it was likely to issue a certificate of assured water supply to Douglas Ranch, but recent notices of "deficiency" to two nearby developments may offer insight. 

The department issued two deficiency notices to the Festival Ranch and Sun City Festival communities near Douglas Ranch in June, saying it had reason to believe there was inadequate groundwater supply in the Hassayampa subbasin. 

The information came from a new "numeric groundwater flow model and model report" the agency was working to finalize, the letter says. 

The applicants, like Douglas Ranch, relied on analyses issued by the department to justify their certificate applications.

The deficiencies are not official certification rejections but instead signal the amount of groundwater available noted in the analyses may be incorrect and that developers may need to secure non-groundwater supplies to qualify for certification.

The department has not said when the model will be finalized. 

State water experts outside the department also have called out the Hassayampa subbasin for potentially dangerously low groundwater levels. 

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Does the Hassayampa subbasin have enough water? 

The state water resources department estimates there are 18.7 million acre-feet of water in the Hassayampa subbasin, according to a Ferris and Porter's 2021 report titled "The Myth of Safe Yield." 

The Hassayampa subbasin is bounded by the Vulture and Wickenburg mountains to the north, White Tank Mountains to the east, Big Horn and Belmont mountains on the west and Gila River to the southeast. 

The department already has allocated nearly 66%, or 11.1 million acre-feet, of the aquifer's water for the next 100 years. 

That could be problematic for various reasons, the report says.

First, too much pumping could lead to land fissures and irreparable damage to the aquifer, permanently destroying its ability to store groundwater down the road. 

As Arizona continues its 20-year drought and braces for a historic Colorado River shortage in 2022, groundwater access becomes even more important and should be viewed as an emergency savings account, Ferris told The Republic. 

Second, it's not clear whether all 18.7 million acre-feet of water is actually useable. 

As water is pumped increasingly farther below ground, "impermeable layers" and "poor quality" could render the water inaccessible or unusable. 

Third, the 18.7 million acre-feet estimate could be wrong. 

The state water resources department's "modeling capabilities are constantly changing, and models are imperfect at predicting the future," the report says.

If the department's new groundwater model shows less than expected groundwater supply in the aquifer, the outcome for Buckeye developments, including Douglas Ranch, could ultimately mirror what has happened in Pinal County, Ferris told The Republic.

There, the water department has halted assured water supply applications after a 2019 groundwater model showed supply was short by 10%, or 8.1 million acre-feet.

“The days of utilizing native groundwater for development in Pinal are over, it’s done," Director Tom Buschatzke was quoted as saying in a June presentation from the department.

Prior to the 2019 Pinal groundwater model, the state issued notices of deficiency to developers in the area for two years — similar to what's now occurring near Douglas Ranch.

What's Buckeye doing to ensure Douglas Ranch's sustainability? 

The Buckeye City Council approved a Water Resources Master Plan in 2020 that outlined the city's water demand, unsustainable reliance on groundwater and potential sources of renewable water supply. 

The plan says the city's current water supply of nearly 35,000 acre-feet annually can serve 343,000 residents — potentially 466,000 with strict water conservation measures. The city grew by 80% to 91,500 residents over the past decadeand could hit nearly 311,000 residents by 2040.

But city leaders must plan for beyond. Douglas Ranch isn't the only behemoth community that could balloon Buckeye's population. 

The city has approved 27 master-planned communities and two area plans that would put the population at 872,000, the plan says. That means Buckeye needs to find water for 529,000 expected residents. 

The supply needs to include non-groundwater sources because "the CAGRD groundwater replenishment requirement of all these MPCs (master-planned communities) significantly exceeds the volume of water that may be available from the CAGRD," the city's masterplan says. "Without a change in direction, the physical groundwater supply underneath Buckeye will decrease and will not be sustainable." 

The plan calls on the city to enact rules requiring developers to bring their own non-groundwater supplies, among other policy suggestions.  

Douglas Ranch's plans, as outlined by the nearly 20-year-old agreement, do not comply with the 2020 plan's suggestions.  

Still, Buckeye Mayor Eric Orsborn said he's "very, very excited" about the community, calling it a "positive" for the city that could provide "many benefits to our residents."

Eric Orsborn.

The master plan is a guide for how Buckeye will acquire water beyond 2040, Orsborn said. Douglas Ranch and its groundwater reliance already have been accounted for in the city's plans for the next 20 years, he and the city's Water Resources Director Alisha Solano said. 

Plus, the city doesn't intend to pivot away from groundwater entirely, Solano told The Republic. The point is to diversity the water portfolio, she said.

When asked how imminently the city needs to require developers to bring non-groundwater supplies, as the 2020 plan suggests, Solano said it would be difficult until Buckeye earns its designation of assured water supply from the state.

The designation would relieve individual developers from having to obtain certificates from the state water department, but the city's a long way from making that happen.

That's in part because potential water resources are expensive. The city would have to pay $610.5 million in upfront costs if it were to go after the main sources of water the plan suggests.   

Since the 2020 plan came out, Solano said the city has secured 2,786 acre-feet of non-Indian agriculture (NIA) water from the Central Arizona Project. 

Buckeye will receive the water beginning in 2022 but could see "substantial delivery reductions" in 2023 since CAP declared a Tier 1 shortage "due to the prolonged drought along the Colorado River basin," according to city documents

"A higher near-term priority is to establish the mechanisms and infrastructure" to transport and treat renewable water supplies in Buckeye, the 2020 plan says. 

To increase Douglas Ranch's sustainability, Solano said the city would "strongly encourage" the community's recharge facility to replenish water from the same aquifer the groundwater was withdrawn but that it was "difficult to say what will be required" when the developer eventually submits infrastructure plans. 

Jon Froke, a former planning director in Glendale, told The Republic that master plan agreements for communities as large as Douglas Ranch sometimes include clawback or performance provisions that would dissolve the contract if certain conditions weren't met.

Those conditions could include deadlines for when a development might need to commence or criteria that both the city and developers must follow. 

"With a project like this, I would expect there be a certain time period for the agreement to be in effect. Something this large, I would think maybe 30 years," Froke said. 

The 2002 agreement does not appear to include any such provisions. 

Reach reporter Taylor Seely at tseely@arizonarepublic.com or 480-476-6116. Follow her on Twitter @taylorseely95 or Instagram @taylor.azc.

Reach reporter Maritza Dominguez at maritza.dominguez@arizonarepublic.com or 480-271-0646. Follow her on Twitter @maritzacdom.

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