- Associated Press - Friday, March 1, 2019

PHOENIX (AP) - Groundwater might not be able to support long-term growth in a largely rural county in south-central Arizona that relies heavily on it, a review of state data shows.

State water regulators confirm dozens of new subdivisions in Pinal County might not have enough water to sustain them for 100 years. State law requires developers to prove they have at least a century’s worth of water before building homes in the state’s five active management areas where groundwater is regulated.

The Arizona Republic reviewed the data and says the water deficit could exceed 700 billion gallons (2,649 billion liters) in Pinal County. It also says the county’s potential water shortage could affect three times as many developments than the Arizona Department of Water Resources previously disclosed.

The department revealed nearly two years ago that it sent letters to the developers of 15 projects saying groundwater “may not be physically available.” But data obtained by the Republic shows another 29 projects, which call for more than 100,000 homes and received initial indication they likely have a 100-year water supply, might not have enough water either.

Department spokesman Doug MacEachern said many of the projects in question were given the go-ahead based on older groundwater modeling that didn’t fully represent the impact of pumping.

Kathy Ferris, a former director of the department, said Pinal County has been depleting its water supplies for a long time.

“We can’t keep pretending that water is physically available when it’s not,” she said.

Homeowners and developers who already have state water permits wouldn’t be affected. A water shortage would affect projects in early planning stages, including the dozens of new subdivisions that would bring more than 139,000 homes, if built.

Pinal County depends on groundwater to supply much of its new development. Developers and some state lawmakers say there’s plenty of water in aquifers for decades to come.

“There’s not an actual water shortage in Pinal,” said Jordan Rose, an attorney who represents developers in the area. “It’s just really an issue of some very large speculative development plays locking up water supply during the last housing boom.”

One lawmaker, Republic Rep. David Cook of Globe, has proposed loosening the groundwater regulations. Cook said his bill would require developers to show progress on a project to keep a claim to water. The claim could be extended indefinitely if developers show “substantial progress,” such as getting zoning approval from a city, even if state data shows there’s not enough water for new homes.

The bill comes as Arizona is wrapping up work on a multi-state plan to combat a shrinking supply of Colorado River water, which gets delivered to the Tucson area through a series of canals. Under that plan, Pinal County farmers would be cut off river water in three years and begin pumping groundwater to serve their crops.

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