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"No one ever thought the Indians would be selling their water rights, and the potential it creates for isolated development is interesting," says Carol Johnson, a member of Phoenix's task force on urban growth and desert preservation.
If developers follow the path of central Arizona municipalities, however, there will be very strong private demand for Indian water leases.
Cities already are counting on Indian water rights to augment their water supplies over the next 40 years.
"We think a lot of the Indian water will end up being leased back to municipal users in the [Central Arizona Project] service area," says Larry Dozier, assistant general manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the operator of the CAP canal.
"As a matter of fact, one could almost say we are counting on it," Dozier adds.
How much Indian water may go to private developers, and what impact that has for growth, is a question CAWCD has not addressed.
"The bottom line is it really comes back to a city or county issue, because they are the ones who zone the land," Dozier says.
Maricopa County's approval of the Villages clearly shows it is not opposed to leapfrog development and cares little where water comes from, as long as the new development meets state requirements demonstrating an assured 100-year water supply.
Supervisors chairman Tom Rawles says he would be "hard-pressed" not to approve a similar project in a relatively isolated area, as long as a water supply was assured and growth was expected in the area.
That could be just about anywhere in Maricopa County. Government planners say the county's population will more than double--reaching 5.8 million by 2035--with no pinch in the Valley's water supply. And those calculations were made without taking Indian water into account.
Valley cities are beginning to take a harder look at growth patterns than the county. Scottsdale, for instance, will ask voters to approve a .2 percent sales-tax increase next month in order to purchase land in the McDowell Mountains slated for development. Phoenix has established several task forces to identify sensitive desert lands that should be preserved.
But addressing regional development issues would require drastic policy changes for city and county planning agencies that now concentrate on providing housing for the 50,000 people who move into the Phoenix area each year.
On a larger scale, the state Land Department is conducting an inventory of about 100,000 acres it controls in the metropolitan area--most of which is in north Phoenix and Scottsdale. Commissioner M. Jean Hassell says the state is working with cities on their development plans.
"We only look at areas that we think are ripe for development," Hassell says.
But no one is looking at growth patterns and development controls on a regional scale, or with an eye for quality rather than quantity. The closest thing to a comprehensive planning agency is the Maricopa Association of Governments, a voluntary organization of cities and towns that has no regulatory authority on growth issues.
MAG, best known for its inept handling of Valley freeway construction, is creating a regional planning committee later this year, but it is unlikely that it will evolve into a regulatory body anytime soon. For one thing, any such evolution would require legislative approval, and MAG is no darling with the legislature.
The creation of a regional planning committee reflects a recognition of growing public concern over growth, says MAG's Dornfeld.
"The magnitude of growth is becoming more and more apparent, and the problems related to it, like congestion, air quality and loss of open space, are more evident," she says.
But Indian water rights and their impact on growth, especially in rural areas, are not issues high on MAG's priority lists.
If other developers follow in Del Webb's footsteps, Indian water will almost certainly spur a pattern of leapfrog development that could strain the Valley's finances as it speeds the Los Angelesization of the desert.
Del Webb has repeatedly assured Maricopa County that it will provide all the local infrastructure needed to support the Villages at Desert Hills. Yet there was little discussion of the development's impact on life in the rest of the Valley.
This is a sensitive issue for Webb. The company's massive Foothills project south of South Mountain has overwhelmed Interstate 10, creating massive traffic jams that have gone unabated for years. The Villages is expected to overload Interstate 17 north of Phoenix in the same way. The freeway will have to be expanded to at least six lanes within 20 years.
"The issue the rest of the community must deal with now is how Del Webb connects to the other parts of the city," says MAG's Dornfeld.