A Chance to Focus Inward

Ugly urban sprawl's the problem, not drought. Metro Phoenix has water to support 10 million souls

Here's a fact that should be at the center of the debate over the future of the Phoenix metropolitan area, but is rarely discussed.

Central Arizona has enough renewable surface water to build and sustain a metropolis of more than 10 million people, if not far more.

Even with a prolonged drought lasting decades, there's still enough water to triple the population of Maricopa County.

Phoenix is restoring five miles of the Salt River with its Rio Salado project.
City of Phoenix
Phoenix is restoring five miles of the Salt River with its Rio Salado project.

We are literally awash in this desert, which is why no serious water-conservation measures have been enacted by local governments even after nine years of drought.

Not that we haven't heard Governor Janet Napolitano's call to create a "culture of conservation" to save every drop of water, while at the same time quietly working with developers -- including dethroned sports czar Jerry Colangelo -- to create a huge city west of the White Tank Mountains that will have more than 200,000 homes.

I'm not saying we don't have water for this outward expansion. We do. But it's not something the state should be encouraging.

The greater Valley of the Sun is rushing headlong into becoming a junior Los Angeles (Maricopa County is growing by more than 100,000 people a year), and no measly drought's thrown a monkey wrench into a real estate play where countless billions of dollars are at stake.

"Water won't be the restraining factor, unless we want it to be," says Phoenix attorney Grady Gammage, one of Arizona's leading experts on growth and development. He means unless government officials decide they won't allow more distant suburbs, preferring instead to force developers to look inward.

But, so far, there has been no effort to use water to restrain growth, much less redirect it. Our current policy is to hoard water behind dams, funnel most of it at an absurdly low cost to farmers to irrigate subsidized surplus crops while releasing most of the rest to developers, who buy cheap land on the urban fringes and build massive, disconnected communities.

The sprawl machine has plenty of takers.

Farmers are happy to eventually sell their land and water rights for development. The state's eager to auction off trust land to facilitate growth in virgin desert. And land speculators make bank as the tidal wave of houses transforms old migrant farm communities like Buckeye, El Mirage and Queen Creek into urban jungles.

There has been no stopping the growth machine that has long been the foundation of Arizona's boom-or-bust economy.

Here's what we need to do. Refocus at least a portion of our explosive growth inward, rather than continuing to encourage sprawl farther out into the remaining segments of the Sonoran Desert. And that means putting caps on the amount of water developers can utilize for outlying developments that are turning our area into an aesthetic nightmare.

"It's a good idea to begin thinking of allocating water supplies, to concentrate growth as much as possible," former Arizona governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt tells me.

This would, Babbitt says, "create incentives for developers to stay close to town rather than going off to the saguaro forests on the hillsides."

One obvious way to stimulate development in the vast urban core that now stretches more than 50 miles east to west is to create a beautiful greenbelt through the center of the metropolitan area by putting a small amount of water back into the Salt River.

The Salt once flowed through the center of the Valley and provided a lush riparian habitat in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Now all we have is a dry river bed that cuts through the core of a metropolis that's becoming more and more like Hermosillo del Norte.

The thing is, there's an incredible amount of vacant and underutilized land in the central core of the Valley -- not only in downtown Phoenix but all along the banks of the Salt from Mesa to its confluence with the Gila River south of Buckeye.

We have an opportunity to use some of our abundant water supply to reinvigorate the river through the center of the metro area. And I'm not talking about an overly expensive project such as Tempe's Town Lake that relies way too much on concrete and not enough on nature.

There's one valuable lesson to be learned from Town Lake. Developers are building office towers and high-rise condominiums along the edge of the lake because people like to be near water, especially in the desert. Even when jet airliners are flying low overhead.

Imagine for a minute a softer version of Town Lake. A public corridor along a restored Salt River with a canopy of cottonwood and willow trees, parks, bike paths, amphitheaters, desert wildflowers and public art stretching across the heart of the city. We don't need a raging river to do this, but a low-flow stream sufficient to stimulate the growth of trees.

Like New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a reinvigorated Salt River would become a powerful incentive for developers to build along its edges. The Salt River greenbelt could attract high-density development, making relentless outward sprawl less desirable to accommodate the hordes moving in.

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