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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.
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.
Development along the Salt greenbelt would also boost property values in our metropolis' inner core, generating an economic windfall for residents of older, economically depressed communities.
The elusive and cool "creative class" would find such an area attractive, especially in and around the downtown sector.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the Maricopa County Flood Control District and several Valley cities are already constructing two restoration projects in the Salt River relying on groundwater, storm water and treated wastewater to restore a low-flow stream and nurture a lush native habitat.
The Rio Salado Project in Phoenix runs from 24th Street to 19th Avenue and is set for public opening next April. Thousands of trees are already growing in and alongside the low-flow channel.
On a recent tour of the project, I saw thousands of "volunteer" trees emerging from the riverbed providing habitat for egrets, red tail hawks, ducks and herons.
Farther west, the Tres Rios Project will restore a section of the river between 83rd and 115th avenues. There are tentative plans to connect these two projects with Rio Salado Oeste.
Maricopa County, meanwhile, is developing a master plan for El Rio Watercourse that would extend from the confluence of the Salt and Gila rivers near 83rd Avenue, 17 miles to the west to just south of Buckeye.
These riverbed restoration efforts should be accelerated and put into place as soon as possible to re-create a sliver of the riparian paradise that once existed here. They could serve as a model for a Valleywide project.
To put into perspective how much water we have, Babbitt recalls a conversation he had a few years ago with a California water official who was amazed at Arizona's vast water resources.
"The guy said to me, 'Arizona's the Saudi Arabia of water.' And I said to him, 'The Saudis will run out of oil, but we won't run out of water.'"
There are three key factors contributing to the abundance of water that (unless there's, um, a sea change in public water policy) is destined to fuel four more decades of sprawl: huge surface-water supplies, tremendous water reserves stored beneath the ground, and nearly a million acres of irrigated farm land.
The Valley lies at the base of one of the most productive watersheds in the world. Rain and snow in the mountains north and east of Phoenix generate an average of a million acre-feet of runoff per year into the Salt and Verde rivers.
This is a stupendous amount of water -- enough to supply the yearly needs of five million people.
The Salt River Project, the state's second largest utility, collects nearly all the runoff behind six dams it operates on the Salt and Verde. When full, these reservoirs store 2.3 million acre-feet of water. Even after nine years of drought, SRP still has 991,000 acre-feet in storage.
This year, the watershed had produced only 335,000 acre-feet of water as of November 30 -- but this is still enough for 1.6 million people.
Central Arizona also benefits from another major water source: the Colorado River. The $5 billion, 336-mile-long Central Arizona Project canal annually brings another 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado to Phoenix, Pinal County and Tucson.
Using the basic formula of one acre-foot of water (325,851 gallons) meeting the needs of five people per year, that's enough water for 7.5 million folks.
And, once again, despite years of drought, Arizona is still taking its full share of water from the Colorado. In fact, it's taking so much water that four million acre-feet of "excess" water has been stored underground in the past eight years for future extraction.
Yet Arizona's surface-water supplies are nothing when compared to its groundwater reserves.
There are at least 624 millionacre-feet of groundwater to a depth of 3,592 feet, according to a 2001 analysis on central Arizona water supplies by Michael R. Moore, a University of Michigan economist, and Stephen P. Holland of the Federal Trade Commission.
Central Arizona's groundwater supplies alone can meet the needs of a metropolis of 10 million people for more than 300 years!
But Arizona need not rely only on groundwater to meet its future needs. Instead, the state could retire a portion of nearly one million acres of farmland to find all the water it needs to keep the population growing at an astounding rate. Nearly 80 percent of the water used in Arizona goes to agriculture while about 10 percent goes to municipalities, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Maricopa, Arizona's largest water-using county, has had a steady decline in total water use between 1990 and 2000, despite its population increasing by 900,000 people to more than three million. How is this possible? Agricultural irrigation fell by 30 percent during this period, freeing up massive water supplies for residential development.
Cities and developers can also turn to Indian tribes for water. The leapfrog community of Anthem, 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix, relies on 10,000 acre-feet of water a year leased from the Ak-Chin Indians.
Last month, Congress put the finishing touches on a comprehensive water bill championed by Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl that will have a profound effect on the future of Arizona and its Indian tribes.
The central component of the bill awards 653,500 acre-feet of water to the Gila Indian River Community to settle water-rights claims dating back a century. The Gila Indians and other tribes are expected to use some of this water for agriculture and community development. But they will also be leasing copious quantities back to growth-crazed cities.
The water deals the tribes cut with cities and developers will make Indian gaming revenue look like chump change.
"It will provide an enormous change in their fortunes," Babbitt says. "For the first time, the Indians are really getting a very fair and generous share."
I have only one request of the Gila Indians:
Put a small portion of the tribe's vast water resources back into the barren Gila River bed that cuts through the reservation south of South Mountain. Simply retiring 5,000 acres of a low-value crop like alfalfa will free up 25,000 acre-feet of water, enough to fuel a healthy, year-round stream and riparian habitat.
Perhaps our civic and business leaders would then see how much people love a flowing river, and it would encourage them to release an adequate amount into the Salt to re-create a sliver of that long-lost riparian splendor.
Nothing would do more to improve the overall quality of life in Phoenix than returning marginal flows to the Salt. This could turn our astounding growth inward -- that is, lure residents downtown instead of encouraging them to live in endless outlying suburbia. It would also be a financial windfall to the city's oldest and poorest neighborhoods.
Let the river flow!
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