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July 13, 2022  

Water Wars in the Modern Wild West

July 13, 2022

In the mid-1990s, another oil boom was on in Calgary, Alberta, and it was literally possible to stand in the prairie and watch suburban development coming at you: bulldozers pushing out new roads, linemen installing power cable, and flatbeds full of stick lumber roiling the dust. 

There’s no oil boom in the outlying desert of the Phoenix, Arizona, metro region, but there is a continuous growth push onto the fringes there, fueled by attractive winter weather, favorable tax rates for business developments creating jobs, and transplants escaping high housing prices in California. Maricopa County has been at the top of the annual population growth charts for many years. 

At Strong Towns, we talk about financial challenges inherent in patterns of suburban development like those we’re seeing recently in Maricopa County. Developers take advantage of higher home sales prices supported by low interest rates to build out fringe development and leave future maintenance costs to local governments in an endless Growth Ponzi Scheme

We are most interested in understanding the intersection between local finance and land use. How does the design of our places impact their financial success or failure? We’ve found that 20–25 years out from development, many municipalities struggle to maintain the infrastructure created in this pattern. 

In the Rio Verde foothills outside Phoenix, unincorporated developments on the fringes are running up against another, more immediate, issue in their development pattern, one which isn’t taking 25 years to become obvious: They are out of water as the Colorado River continues to dry out in a generational drought.

A recent New Yorker piece by Rachel Morse called “The Water Wars Come to the Suburbs” points out the almost insurmountable issue facing families who are buying $600,000, 2,000-square-foot plus homes in the Rio Verde foothills and then finding it impossible to drill wells or have water delivered in trucks. 

Those with water are worried those without will ruin it all by bringing county-level interventions or regulations, or even (gasp!) Home Owner Associations, into the mix. It’s currently a Wild West rural lifestyle full of stars, dirt roads, gorgeous desert landscapes, and quiet nights. But neighbors fighting neighbors over a diminishing water supply isn’t stopping suburban-style development, which continues unabated. 

“Despite the ruptures within the community, the one thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that there was way too much development in the Rio Verde Foothills,” Morse writes in her New Yorker piece. Karen Nabity, a Rio Verde resident featured in the article, is well aware that last year Maricopa County added more residents than any other county in the country. “Well, yeah, it’s because they’re issuing building permits with no water,” Nabity tells Morse. “We are building way beyond our means.’”

This week on Upzoned, host Abby Kinney of Multistudio in Kansas City is joined by Strong Towns Content Manager Jay Stange to discuss the water wars in Arizona. Both agree that rural lifestyles are attractive for many reasons, as long as people are truly independent. But what happens when the bill comes due for all that independence? Is it fair to ask county-level governments to step in to stop a water war? 

Additional Show Notes