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Residential swimming pools use groundwater in the Sonoran Desert in Buckeye, Arizona.
Running Dry

The Water Wars Deciding the Future of the West

From conservation to importing water from the Pacific, Democrats say they have all the answers to historic drought. The one thing no one wants to talk about: stopping the sprawl.

Residential swimming pools use groundwater in the Sonoran Desert in Buckeye, Arizona.

On the eastern flank of metropolitan Las Vegas, out past a water park advertising “the world’s largest man-made wave” and a nascent development called Cadence, a red-dirt parking lot teases public access to the system that enabled the past three decades of growth in southern Nevada. Called the Las Vegas Wash, it amounts to a channel that funnels the area’s recycled water back to its aquatic lifeline: Lake Mead.

Bushwhacking through the cottonwoods that line the wash and past a massive desert tobacco plant’s spray of flutelike flowers reveals the riverbank. Whatever sense of the pastoral I was enjoying in the bright December sun was immediately disrupted by the water itself, which gave off a distinctive odor—not definitively chemical, but certainly treated. Overhead, three pelicans with black-tipped wings swooped into view, wheeling into an updraft while, in the elbow of one of the concrete weirs that control the wash’s 12-mile run through the Las Vegas Valley, a few cans of Monster energy drink bobbled in the foam.

Every day, 200 million gallons of water are returned to Lake Mead—the nation’s largest reservoir—through the wash, enough to virtually replace all of the water that’s used indoors by the 2.3 million residents of Clark County. The ultimate source is the Colorado River and the contentious ledger that governs the waterway’s use throughout its 1,450-mile run between the Rocky Mountains and the Sea of Cortez, which separates Baja California from the rest of Mexico. While Las Vegas is now widely recognized as a national leader in water efficiency, the situation was completely different in the late 1980s, when the city was gulping down its meager allocation of the Colorado so quickly that some believed the burgeoning metropolis would go completely dry by 1995. Early in her two-decade tenure as Las Vegas’ top water official, Patricia Mulroy, who has lingered in the regional imagination as a sort of water wizard, was forced to call a moratorium on new development. Back then, Las Vegas was less than a third the size it is today.

A few weeks after my visit to the Las Vegas Wash, Katie Hobbs, the newly elected governor of Arizona, released a report showing that the rapidly expanding far West Valley of Phoenix was pumping groundwater at an unsustainable rate. “We have to act now, or this will only be the first new area that faces this kind of shortage,” the Democrat said in her debut address upon taking office. She followed up that promise in June by issuing her own moratorium on any new development in metropolitan Phoenix that is entirely reliant on groundwater. Regulators had found that many of the outlying communities in Maricopa County were out of compliance with a state law requiring all new residential construction to have a guaranteed supply for 100 years.

Hobbs prevailed over the far-right former news anchor Kari Lake by just 17,000 votes last year, in a contest that seemed to demonstrate the electoral limits of the Republican Party’s total embrace of MAGA-style extremism. The only gubernatorial race with a narrower raw vote margin in 2022 was in Nevada, where the more establishment-oriented—if not exactly moderate—Republican Joe Lombardo squeaked ahead of the incumbent, Steve Sisolak, by a mere 15,000 votes. Those races were indicative of the Southwest’s drift from the sort of place that birthed Republican icons like Barry Goldwater, Paul Laxalt, and John McCain into one of the most competitive regions in the country. While Hillary Clinton’s narrow 2016 loss there hinted at what was coming, Arizona, especially, seemed to flip from ruby red to periwinkle blue almost overnight, with Republicans managing to lose both U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, and the state’s Electoral College votes in just four years.

Democrats across the country hope the Southwest’s largest state will be the next Colorado: a longtime libertarian stronghold reborn as progressive haven thanks to rapidly growing Democratic cities and moderate suburbs. Meanwhile, Arizona’s conservatives have seized on water restrictions as fuel for the fire of cultural grievance they have traditionally used to seek power. When I spoke to him this summer, far-right Representative Paul Gosar called Hobbs’s development moratorium “an impulsive scare tactic.” “It’s not your way or the highway,” said Gosar, who is a close ally of Lake, traveling with her to a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event in Hungary earlier this year. “It scared people, it really did,” he said, adding, “We have plenty of fresh water. It’s just the distribution that’s the problem.”

An aerial view shows homes under varying stages of construction in the Copper Falls subdivision, farm fields and older housing developments in Buckeye, Arizona

Distribution is certainly part of the problem. Over the course of the twentieth century, tens of billions of federal dollars were used to move water across the vast Colorado River Basin, which encompasses Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado itself. The transformation of the basin began in the 1930s with the construction of the Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead, and ended in 1993 with the completion of the Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile aqueduct system that conveys water from the Colorado to Phoenix and Tucson. All that infrastructure has made it possible for the river system to theoretically supply water to more than 40 million people and five million acres of farmland. But the basin’s stability depends less on dams and reservoirs than on rainfall and snowpack, and it has been shaken by a so-called megadrought that set in just over two decades ago. Climate scientists now believe the dry conditions are reflective of a trend toward more permanent aridification. Their research also shows that water scarcity is only made worse by the region’s triple-digit summers—especially brutal this year—given the link between high temperatures and groundwater depletion. (Gosar has falsely claimed that “the science is not settled” on climate change and suggested plants will take care of all the excess CO2 in the atmosphere through the magic of photosynthesis.)

Over the past 20 years, public officials in the Southwest responded to aridification by shifting their emphasis from corralling and diverting water to making better use of what’s already available, allowing the region’s cities to explode in size merely by reducing their per capita water use. But with aquifers already overtaxed across the Southwest, the region is also coping with the first-ever limitations on how much water can be diverted from the Colorado, which went into effect after Lake Mead dropped below 35 percent full in 2021. Arizona has borne the brunt of the cuts: This year, its allocation of Colorado River water was cut by 592,000 acre-feet, with each acre-foot representing enough water to supply around three households annually. Though above-average snowfall in the winter of 2022–23 helped to temporarily stabilize the reservoir, its water level has only recovered to around the same elevation as when mandatory cuts first went into effect. Next year, Arizona will still have to make do with only 82 percent of its typical allocation.

In response to the sense of crisis that has descended over the Southwest, momentum is building for a return to the era of massive federal investment in waterworks. Already, the region’s congressional delegation succeeded in securing $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for drought mitigation, as well as over $10 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that manages the West’s dams and aqueducts. The next logical step would be augmenting the region’s water supply, namely by importing water from elsewhere. Of all the region’s legislators, Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona seems most ready to go back to the future by betting big on new infrastructure. “We need to start looking long-term: What do we want the Southwest to look like 15, 20, 30 years from now?” he asked me this summer. “The Bureau of Reclamation has done a bunch of studies about moving water from another watershed [as well as] desalination. These things are possible to do, but we’ve got to plan ahead and start having those conversations.”

Kelly’s public embrace of augmentation comes after Hobbs’s predecessor, Doug Ducey, sought $1 billion for a proposed desalination plant in the Sea of Cortez, which would ferry water to Phoenix via a 200-mile pipeline. When the Republican-led legislature approved that plan, a poll found that 74 percent of likely voters in Arizona were in support of purging the salt from ocean water to propel them into the future. When respondents were informed the full build-out could cost upward of $10 billion, support only barely softened, to 63 percent. Whatever the cost, this sort of augmentation project is viewed by many as practical, even inevitable. John Graham, one of Arizona’s most prominent real estate developers, typically donates to Republicans but endorsed Hobbs in 2022 because he feared the “toxic” environment that Kari Lake might have created. When I asked him about investing in augmentation infrastructure, he replied simply, “We have to.”

Stephen Roe Lewis (left), governor of the Gila River Indian Community, with Senator Mark Kelly in February 2022 at a worksite for water infrastructure

Not everyone in the Southwest is quite so certain. Beyond the environmental toll desalination plants take on the bodies of water where they’re located and the immense amount of energy pumping water over long distances requires, critics charge that augmentation’s only real purpose would be to facilitate the local tradition of shortsighted sprawl. “The Southwest, for a long time, has been based on economic growth, which is getting as many people here as possible, as many microchip factories, as many golf courses,” Brian Petersen, an environmental scholar at Northern Arizona University, told me.

Petersen pointed out that, some years after first mapping the Colorado River in 1869, the nineteenth-century explorer John Wesley Powell gave a speech in which he told an audience of aspiring farmers and land speculators, “There is not enough water to supply the land.” After well over a century of ignoring that warning, the Southwest seems poised to keep forging ahead, clawing at whatever new water resources it can in desperate hopes of further staving off the inevitable moment when its people are forced to accept the inherent limitations of the desert. Even as Democrats lead the national charge toward tackling climate change, they are continuing to preach at the altar of growth. That may solidify their electoral gains in the Southwest, but it also risks a different sort of environmental chaos.

For many residents of Cochise County, in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, the first sign of trouble was the dust. Starting around 2019, the wind that gusts through the Sulphur Springs Valley would pick up loose grit from the thousands of acres of arid land that were being cleared to grow alfalfa. So much dirt became airborne that even the Chiricahua Mountains, towering 6,000 feet above the sunbaked valley, would sometimes disappear. “The dust was so dark, thick, and high that you could not see the mountains,” remembered Beau Hodai, a journalist who lives in the valley. “I looked up a number of times and thought the town was on fire because there were just huge plumes of black smoke rising.”

The company clearing all that land was Riverview Dairy, which first arrived in Cochise County in 2014, two years after local officials made it easier to obtain agricultural permits there. It was an appealing spot for the Minnesota-based producer: The aquifer could be pumped easily because of its low salt content, and the mild winters meant it was possible to grow alfalfa year-round. But as Riverview sank 60 wells to water the 20,000 acres it had amassed, the water table dropped, endangering small farmers who couldn’t afford to extend their wells deeper into the ground. An activist group called Arizona Water Defenders formed in response, gradually coalescing around a plan to pass a ballot referendum that would establish a regulatory apparatus known as an Active Management Area, or AMA, over groundwater in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Under that designation, all current use would continue under the supervision of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, but the sinking of new wells would be significantly curtailed.

Over the course of the campaign for the new regulation, water management—the once staid domain of utilities and engineers—transformed into yet another front in Arizona’s culture war. Two months before the referendum, the Water Defenders invited Kristine Uhlman, a retired hydrologist from the University of Arizona, to give a presentation at the YMCA in the border town of Douglas. Uhlman focused on the simple idea that, in the Sonoran Desert, groundwater is not a renewable resource. “All of these aquifers are savings accounts, meaning water went in, and it’s been sitting there for thousands of years,” she recalled explaining. “In one location south of Phoenix, we have water that’s 23,000 years old. In Cochise County, it’s 10,000 years old. You are relying on a savings account. So how do you manage the water you use, knowing that once you use it up, it’s gone?”

“We assiduously avoided any whiff of partisanship,” added MaryAnn Capehart, one of the event’s organizers. “Really carefully, at all times. We did not want to be identified with a party. We even avoided using the word ‘environmental’; apparently that triggers people.” Those efforts to steer clear of partisanship were vital in a county where Donald Trump crushed Joe Biden by 20 points. Still, Capehart was struck by the libertarian fatalism with which some members of the Douglas audience greeted Uhlman’s presentation. “I’ve got a well; when it dries up, it dries up. I’ll just move to town,” Capehart remembered one attendee saying; another: “My water’s going to go down, who cares? We just don’t want government in here.”

Ann Waters, a leather worker who lives in McNeal, rejects the very idea that the region’s groundwater is endangered. “They’re lying about the aquifer drying up,” she told me. “My neighbors down the road, their water level has risen…. All these people who said their wells went dry, they just had to replace an ancient pump.” To her mind, the campaign for new regulation amounted to “a communist takeover. It’s against the Fifth Amendment to seize private property, and that’s what the AMA does.”

Elsewhere in rural Arizona, the priority system that governs the use of Colorado River water has meant that the cuts to how much water the state can divert through the Central Arizona Project—which went into effect last year—have fallen almost entirely on farmers in Pinal County, which sits between Phoenix and Tucson. As a result, those farmers have been pumping groundwater to make up the difference, even as the state is projecting an eight million-acre-foot shortfall in the amount of groundwater available to residential users in Pinal over the next century. Patrick Bray, an executive at the Arizona Farm and Ranch Group, sees the situations in Cochise and Pinal as evidence of the profound strain the current regulatory regime—modest though it may be—is taking on rural areas. “The course of action is, OK, how can we regulate a user, how can we shut somebody down, how can we cap their wells, meter them—what regulatory rules can we throw at this thing to quote unquote save water,” he said. “We need to be focused on a grander future. How are we going to continue to be sustainable? How are we going to get those new sources of water?”

Part of the reason rural areas feel so threatened by scrutiny of their water consumption is that farms and ranches use 80 percent of the water in the Southwest, so urban utilities often talk about drawing down agricultural use as an obvious way to free up more for development. The University of Arizona’s Robert Glennon, an expert in Western water law, believes many farmers could save a tremendous amount of water simply by switching from flood irrigation to using pivoting sprinklers or drip lines—expensive reforms, but ones that the federal money already designated for drought mitigation is partially intended to pay for. “If we could simply get the farm sector to reduce their consumption from 80 percent to 75 percent ... that solves the cities’ problem—5 percent!” he said. In response, Bray remarked that, though the ag sector is indeed focused on efficiency, “You can only squeeze so much water out of a turnip.”

An irrigation ditch filled with groundwater in an agricultural area of Buckeye, Arizona

In the end, Cochise County instituted the new regulatory system in the southern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley, the first time that Arizona voters have ever imposed limits on their own ability to pump groundwater. Shortly after that vote, the state Department of Water Resources established new limits in Mohave County, too, where massive farms overusing groundwater created similar issues. Rather than an unwelcome imposition of regulation on a conservative area, that order came after officials in Mohave—where the entire Board of Supervisors is Republican—made three requests for regulation over the course of six years.

As rural Arizona reckons with water scarcity, it remains to be seen just how much the crisis might be serving to upend traditional skepticism of government. After the Active Management Area in Cochise County went into effect, Ann Waters learned that all current well owners were required to file a new application with the state, which could include an initial fee of up to $1,000. Outraged, she organized her own petition to repeal the regulations. During their initial campaign, it took the Arizona Water Defenders the better part of a year to gather the signatures necessary to get their measure on the ballot. Though the repeal effort has since run into legal snags, Waters managed the feat in just two months.

A few miles northwest of the Strip, the headquarters of the Southern Nevada Water Authority is a long, low complex of gray buildings fronted by an immaculately xeriscaped planter showcasing a towering prickly pear cactus. Inside, the agency’s general manager, John Entsminger, told me that when he began working at the utility in 1999, the Colorado River Basin was coming off one of the wettest periods in recorded history. Its two massive reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, were nearly full, and the seven states that share the river were negotiating how to allocate the surplus.

Entsminger is broad-shouldered and avuncular, a lawyer with a crew cut who radiates a certain sense of masculine whimsy, decorating his corner office with a fire hydrant painted with the colors of Las Vegas’ NHL team, the Golden Knights, and a sculpture of a dripping kitchen tap. “Our use in 2002 was 325,000 acre-feet, so 25,000 acre-feet above our apportionment,” Entsminger said. At the time, his boss was the pugnacious Pat Mulroy, beloved in Clark County for her advocacy on behalf of metro Las Vegas but resented elsewhere in the Southwest, where she has accrued nicknames like the “water empress” and “the prophet of growth.”

After being appointed to lead Las Vegas’ water authority in 1989, Mulroy had launched an audit of the not yet built subdivisions and resorts where water diversions had already been approved. “What it showed was that we were way overcommitted,” she remembered. She ordered the moratorium on new development in 1991, which spooked her peers in the suburbs of North Las Vegas and Henderson into taking a look at their own books, where they found similar shortfalls. “It became pretty obvious that there was only one way out, and that was for us to combine forces,” she said.

All the previously competing interests were corralled into the Southern Nevada Water Authority, or SNWA, a singular utility that could both manage the region’s existing resources and seek to supplement them. Mulroy explained, “Once we were working together, we could enter into a contract with the federal government to access return flow credits”—the mechanism that allows southern Nevada to effectively use much more water than it’s officially entitled to. “For every gallon of wastewater that we treat, put in the Las Vegas Wash, and return to Lake Mead, we can take a like amount out.” Since 40 percent of water in Las Vegas is used indoors and then recycled, the city only consumes 60 percent of what it draws from Lake Mead, effectively boosting Nevada’s annual entitlement of the Colorado River from 300,000 acre-feet to 420,000 acre-feet. In 1992, Mulroy lifted her moratorium, and Las Vegas’ growth was fully unleashed, helped along by the decade’s abnormally wet conditions.

All of this technocratic jockeying required the consent of the federal government, and Mulroy had a powerful ally in Democratic U.S. Senator Harry Reid. Jon Ralston, the longtime Las Vegas journalist who is at work on a biography of the late Senate majority leader, told me, “Pat Mulroy was so trusted by Harry Reid that if she said, ‘I need this,’ he would almost be willing to accept it at face value.” In 1998, when Reid was pushing a bill that opened up 68,000 acres of public land in southern Nevada to private development, Mulroy persuaded him to include a provision that diverted 10 percent of every sale to her new agency. “This community understood that without a robust water supply, it wouldn’t exist,” Mulroy said. “There wouldn’t be any development without SNWA.”

Those extra funds would prove vital when drought seized the Southwest at the turn of the twenty-first century. Suddenly, the Colorado only carried a quarter of its previous average flow. By the end of 2002, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which had nearly reached capacity just two years earlier, were now only 64 percent full. “After the drought in 2002, our next 17 years of water supply was gone”—Entsminger snapped his finger as he spoke—“in a month.” The SNWA began an aggressive conservation push, which included paying homeowners $2 for every square foot of turf that was removed from their lawns and upgrading water reclamation facilities—initiatives subsidized, in part, by the $285 million the agency garnered in the first decade after Reid’s land bill went into effect.

Much of the SNWA’s windfall also went to buying up land in rural areas north of Clark County, where Mulroy planned to pump groundwater and funnel it to Las Vegas. But that plan was challenged in court by a broad array of rural ranchers, environmentalists, American Indian tribes, and local governments—even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined in, and a state judge rejected the plan twice, in 2013 and then again in 2020. Though the SNWA declined to appeal the most recent ruling, the utility still operates alfalfa farms across an enormous swath of rural Nevada, lest it lose its right to the water that Mulroy once characterized as a “safety net if the river really goes south.”

So far, Entsminger, who succeeded Mulroy in 2014, has been focused on conservation. The SNWA has kept its annual consumption below 275,000 acre-feet, the limit that was imposed for 2023 because of the expanding bathtub ring of white stone left behind by the dwindling waters of Lake Mead. Now, Entsminger said, the agency is aiming to get per capita use even lower, to 86 gallons per person per day by 2035. Imposing greater efficiency on southern Nevada is an urgent matter, since the region is about to embark on its next major growth spurt. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto has been pursuing a new lands bill, modeled on Reid’s 1998 legislation, that would open up some 25,000 acres south of Las Vegas to private development. In June, she introduced another bill that would allow the SNWA to build a pipeline, dubbed the Horizon Lateral, connecting that area to Lake Mead. Entsminger insists that the pipeline is meant to create “redundancy in our water system”—right now, 40 percent of the metropolitan area is reliant on a single, aging pipe for drinking water—but it’s clear that it would also ease the development of what is currently federal land, allowing metropolitan Las Vegas to grow according to the same logic it has used for the past three decades.

Cortez Masto told me that her bills would facilitate the “sustainable expansion” of southern Nevada. “There is no new building that’s going to go up in Las Vegas without a comprehensive plan for how we use our limited water resources.” Environmental activists focused on conservation are skeptical. “The endgame is to sprawl south of the Las Vegas Valley,” Kyle Roerink, who heads the Great Basin Water Network—an organization that was initially formed to fight Mulroy’s designs on rural Nevada—told me. “It underscores how rapidly Las Vegas is growing at a very precarious time.”

In a perfect world, Las Vegas’ per capita water use would drop enough that it could keep growing for decades without surpassing its current entitlement of Colorado River water, or even resorting to converting its alfalfa farms to pumping stations. Mulroy, at least, seems loath to take that bet. “As much as I passionately believe in conservation being a foundational part of any solution,” she said, “it is not a silver bullet. Conservation cannot solve the problem in its entirety. You have to add water to the supply.”

The city of Buckeye sits on the far western edge of greater Phoenix, separated from the rest of the metropolis of nearly five million people by the White Tank Mountains. Buckeye was founded as an agricultural colony in the late nineteenth century, and the portion of the city nearest the Gila River is still dominated by feedlots and cotton farms. But on the north side of Interstate 10, there’s no farmland, just a vast desert plain interrupted only by a development called Tartesso. Once fully built out, Tartesso will include 41,000 homes, the community’s green landscaping and Spanish-tile roofs lining the curving streets and cul-de-sacs that radiate away from roundabouts studded with palm trees.

I had Tartesso’s community park to myself when I visited on an afternoon with an air temperature of 104 degrees. A volleyball net had been stretched over a rectangle of beach sand, and I stood and watched as sprinklers mounted to the top of each pole sprayed water, keeping the sand cool for the people who weren’t there. Over in the playground, a collection of colorful apparatuses ran on an automatic cycle: jetting water from the ground, shooting water in a geyser out of the top of a purple column, dumping water from a trio of swiveling red buckets. On the other side of the wall of masonry that divided the park from the undeveloped desert beyond, deep-bellied power lines hung from massive steel towers, extending out toward the distant blue peak of Belmont Mountain.

The Tartesso Community Park and playground in Buckeye, the westernmost suburb of Phoenix

The population of Buckeye has surged from 6,500 people in 2000 to over 114,000 today. And its expansion has only just begun: The city has annexed so much land that its limits now encompass almost 400 square miles, more area than is occupied by San Diego. When fully built out, local leaders have promised, Buckeye will hold some 1.5 million people, which would put it in competition with Phoenix as Arizona’s largest city.

This part of central Arizona is known as the far West Valley. Thirty miles from downtown Phoenix, it represents the new frontier of development beyond established West Valley enclaves like Glendale and Peoria. According to the groundwater report that Governor Hobbs released last January, once all the developments planned for the far West Valley are built, the Hassayampa aquifer that supplies them could be overdrawn by as much as 84,000 acre-feet per year—twice as much groundwater as the entire city of Albuquerque uses every year. Still more alarming, the report suggested that even some of the homes that had already been built could run out of water well before the 2100s.

Hobbs paired the report’s release with an accusation that Governor Ducey had ignored the very same findings. “I don’t understand, and do not in any way agree with, my predecessor choosing to keep this report from the public and from members of this legislature,” Hobbs said, the directness of the attack masked by her imperturbable style, perhaps a remnant of her career as a social worker. “However, my decision to release this report signals how I plan to tackle our water issues openly and directly.”

Given the bifurcation of Arizona’s electorate, it was less surprising that Hobbs would throw an elbow at the outgoing Republican governor than that she would do so in the process of lunging toward the third rail of politics in the Southwest: growth. Robert Glennon, the water policy and law professor at the University of Arizona, explained that, throughout the twentieth century, “water was a unifying theme across party boundaries. Whether it was Barry Goldwater from the right or Mo Udall from the left, they believed that it was critically important for Arizona to grow, that they find more water for Arizona.”

With partisan tensions over groundwater already heightened in the rural reaches of the state, Hobbs was now suggesting that the long-term, bipartisan assumption that more water could always be found to fuel the growth machine was wrong. Nicole DeMont, who runs the governor’s political operation, told me Hobbs was simply following through on the promises she had made in her campaign against Lake. “We talked a lot about focusing on real problems in the campaign—i.e., not conspiracy theories,” DeMont said. “I think that message really resonated with everyday Arizonans, who are concerned that one day water won’t come out of their taps.” She shared an exit poll from the 2022 election that showed just 14 percent of voters were “very confident” Arizona would have enough water in the next decade. (Hobbs was not made available for an interview for this story.)

Many Democrats applauded Hobbs’s transparency, including Mark Kelly. “The governor is making smart decisions,” he said. “She’s not just looking to next month or even her term in office, she’s looking decades into the future.” But on the local level, Buckeye’s mayor, Eric Orsborn—whose office is nonpartisan, though Republicans far outnumber Democrats in the city’s voter rolls—was less than enthusiastic about Hobbs’s decision to publicize the report, which effectively put a stop to any new residential development in his city unless it could secure rights to water outside the Hassayama aquifer. In response, he issued a video assuring residents and potential investors, “Buckeye’s water future is secure, and it is not in danger.” Before entering politics, Orsborn worked in the construction business—in fact, he still owns a construction firm—and in May he hosted a “community partners meeting” where he reiterated to a crowd of real estate professionals and local farmers that current residents of the city were not in imminent danger of running out of water.

Days after that event, Hobbs held the second news conference where she announced that the state’s Department of Water Resources had analyzed groundwater for the entire Phoenix region and found a potential 4 percent shortfall in supply over the next century. Combined with the report about the Hassayampa aquifer that applied only to communities like Buckeye, it was a one-two punch that sent heads spinning across the state, particularly among developers who had never previously thought of securing water rights as anything aside from a bureaucratic hurdle. “We have to close this gap and find efficiencies for our water use, manage our aquifers wisely, and increase our utilization of renewable supplies,” Hobbs said. She went on to announce that, because so much of the metropolis had been revealed to be out of compliance with existing law, “we will pause approvals of new assured water supply determinations that rely on pumping groundwater, ensuring that we don’t add to any future deficit.” In other words, the moratorium on new development that relied on groundwater would be extended from just the far West Valley to the entirety of the Phoenix metropolitan area and affect every outlying town without access to water from the Colorado or one of Arizona’s smaller rivers.

For now, voters seem to be reserving judgment on the new governor. Though a July Morning Consult poll pegged Hobbs’s approval rating at only 47 percent, one in 10 voters were still making up their minds about her. Arizona’s donor class appears to be less hesitant about the state’s new political regime: While the state Democratic Party raised close to double what the local GOP did in the first nine months of 2019, that margin ballooned to a factor of 10 in the first half of this year—$1.25 million compared to $132,980. Francis Najafi, an investor and minority owner of the Phoenix Suns, has donated more than $500,000 to Republicans over the years, but became a firm supporter of Arizona Democrats in the past few election cycles, and has donated at least $12,000 to progressive candidates in 2023, after writing a $10,000 check to a political action committee associated with Mark Kelly last year. Likewise, Robert Bertrand, the CEO of a loan servicing company who was once a major donor to John McCain and former Senator Jeff Flake and started supporting Democratic politicians after Donald Trump’s first presidential nomination, has ponied up to the state Democratic Party this year. Even the car dealer Jim Click, who has been a central figure in Arizona Republican politics for decades, said this year that he is now supporting individual candidates rather than giving to a state party that he believes has become too radical. Big-time donors like these may not be focused on water issues. But it is also true that, in spite of Hobbs’s frankness when it comes to water scarcity, very little has changed about real estate development or the broader economy on the ground—and Democrats represent stability, which in Arizona means even more growth. Buckeye, for instance, has already issued 23,000 certificates of an assured 100-year water supply for proposed homes. Those will not be affected by the current moratorium, nor will the other 60,000 certificates in metro Phoenix, even though many of those approvals were clearly issued in error; otherwise, there would be no shortfall.

“We’re in a new era where water is now openly discussed,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “You have the federal government getting involved; states trying to figure out what they want their future to be, because it’s not going to be unlimited. At the same time, doing this in a highly polarized political environment within swing states.…” He chuckled at the imposing scale of the problem, which is only exacerbated by the expectation that water scarcity be addressed at the same time the economy keeps expanding. While 30 years ago it may have been possible to thread that needle solely through the technocratic maneuvering of a politically connected utility, as in Las Vegas, many influential voices in Arizona are now focused on the seemingly straightforward solution of adding more water to the pot. “The alarm bell went off, OK, take it seriously, fix the issues and let’s move on,” Graham, the CEO of a real estate developer called Sunbelt Holdings, told me. “Where we are now, I think everyone recognizes—especially with the drought—it’s stuff you can’t ignore, but you can manage around it. In our case, it’s: What do we do around conservation and augmentation?”

On the final morning of the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual conference last December, Mark Kelly took the stage in one of the ballrooms at Caesars Palace. Standing at a rostrum two elevators up from the gaming floor, he opened his set with a joke. It was perfectly tailored to the audience of water lawyers and engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation: a riff about God telling Moses he needed to “do the NEPA process”—referring to the National Environmental Policy Act—before he could part the Red Sea. It won a generous laugh.

From there, Kelly took credit for helping to broker the recent infusion of federal money into the Western water system before telling the ballroom he wanted to think even bigger. “Now is the time to take a serious look at augmentation,” he said. “Augmentation projects that were once dismissed as too ambitious, like large-scale desalinization plants and importing water from other basins. Now, these are ambitious ideas—I get that. But they’re no more ambitious than the Hoover Dam or the Glen Canyon Dam when they were conceived.”

Following his speech, I asked Kelly if promoting augmentation might detract focus from the conservation measures that have formed the backbone of the Colorado River Basin’s response to the last two decades of drought. After all, Governor Hobbs would later tell the Arizona Capitol Times that “a desal plant in Mexico is not an immediate solution at all,” and that she was focused on “a number of conservation projects that we could fund instead that would do more to protect water than waiting 10 years to tap desalinated water.”

While Kelly acknowledged that augmentation “doesn’t help us solve the immediate crisis,” he reaffirmed, “I think it’s smart to think long-term.” When we spoke again this summer, he seemed particularly excited about a proposal from the Israeli company IDE Technologies to build a desalination plant on the Sea of Cortez, his usual, pragmatic affect giving way to the geeky enthusiasm of a trained engineer. “I’ve spoken to them about what this thing could look like. In theory, they could build a plant that produces about 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. Pipe it up into Phoenix, put it in the Central Arizona Project. They feel like they could scale that up, maybe upwards of a million acre-feet of water”—four times the amount metropolitan Las Vegas consumes every year. “Now we’re talking about a really significant amount of water.”

While Kelly’s and Hobbs’s divergent attitudes about augmentation reveal something of a split approach between the state’s two most influential Democrats when it comes to addressing the water crisis, it’s more a question of emphasis, perhaps necessitated by their roles. Governors are responsible for the day-to-day management of a state, while senators are empowered to think big-picture. In the end, they are aligned. In Las Vegas, Kelly told me, “We have 40 million people that rely on this river—I’d like to see that number go up.” At Hobbs’s June press conference, she emphasized the limited nature of her moratorium, making clear it would not hinder the construction of any new industrial projects, like the $40 billion microchip factory that President Joe Biden visited Phoenix to tout last year. “This pause will not affect growth within any of our major cities where robust water portfolios have been proven to cover current and future demands,” Hobbs said. “I cannot emphasize that enough.”

Robert Glennon served on a recent commission that studied using a desalination plant in the Sea of Cortez to replenish California’s rapidly evaporating Salton Sea. He said they found three major issues: energy, cost, and environmental impact. Because desalination plants operate 24/7, “that takes renewables off the table, because renewables—wind and solar—run intermittently,” and batteries large enough to store sufficient power overnight do not yet exist. Meanwhile, the cost for a plant capable of treating even 100,000 acre-feet of water annually would be mind-bogglingly expensive—over $70 billion. And then there’s the discharge. Currently, America’s largest desalination plant is in Carlsbad, California. Every year, it releases around 50,000 acre-feet of brine into the Pacific Ocean for every 50,000 acre-feet of fresh water that’s created. The Sea of Cortez, Glennon said, is “a very shallow ocean. There are endangered species there, including the vaquita porpoise, and there are internationally protected wetlands. You start taking immense quantities of briny water and dumping it, you’re just going to wreak havoc.”

Kelly’s office declined to address any specific concerns around desalination or other augmentation projects, instead emphasizing that the senator thought they merited discussion as a way to complement the priority that is already being put on conservation projects around the region. Water scarcity, Kelly told me, “shouldn’t in any way prevent our growth.... If we act early enough and make smart decisions, appropriate the right funds to come up with programs … we can manage this in a really positive way.”

Like Glennon, Newsha Ajami, a hydrologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, believes that augmentation would be irresponsible to pursue, given the Southwest is far from exhausting the possibilities of conservation. She pointed out that, over the past 20 years, “population and economic growth have decoupled from water use,” with cities across the region growing rapidly while using much less water than they did in the 1990s, even as they’re still far less efficient than they could be. “In San Francisco, I know we’re a dense urban area, but our water use is only 40 gallons per person per day.” That’s a third of the current use in Phoenix, and half of the goal that John Entsminger has set for southern Nevada.

But if you talk to enough environmental scholars, you can’t help getting the feeling that overhauling water policy—and even leaning into conservation—wouldn’t be enough to secure the region’s future. Instead, it might be better for the Southwest to divorce itself from the ideal of perpetual growth and fully reorient itself around sustainability. Naturally, the governor’s camp sees things differently, and is hungry to become associated with a sort of sensible center. “People don’t want extremes on either side,” said Nicole DeMont, the Hobbs political strategist. “In Arizona, they just want a steady hand that’s focused on the future.… There’s a lot of big issues right now that, if we don’t solve, it’s a real threat to middle-class growth, economic growth, companies moving here—all of that.”

In the Southwest, growth is more than just something municipalities, irrigation districts, and businesspeople strive to achieve—it’s tantamount to the purpose of government. “I remember growing up, all the discussions about the Central Arizona Project,” said Buckeye Mayor Orsborn. “We have all this growth headed our way; how do we water everybody?” But that aqueduct didn’t really add new capacity to the system; it simply allowed the state to shift from pumping its groundwater to using the Colorado River. “The Central Arizona Project wasn’t built so much with the idea of, ‘Now we can really grow,’” said Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “It really was about the existential situation that Arizona was facing, which was that it was a good place to develop a city by so many different standards, and yet it was using up a finite water supply in the process.” Put another way: The massive infrastructure projects of the past that so many policymakers are now looking to as inspiration for the future did not create the conditions for more growth, but simply met the voracious demand that had already been established.

A view of the Central Arizona Project canal in Arcadia, a neighborhood of Phoenix. The canal snakes through Arizona, starting at Lake Havasu and ending 336 miles away, southwest of Tucson.

However popular the idea of tunneling in new water may be among the voters and vested interests of the Southwest, far more radical change may be necessary. On that score, Hobbs’s willingness to put the brakes on some residential development—if only temporarily—is a breath of fresh air, simply because it represents an attempt to contend with the reality of the situation. But unlike southern Nevada, where there is really only one water source and one water customer—the Colorado River and metropolitan Las Vegas—the enormous complexity of Arizona means that a quick pivot to conservation, much less halting growth, is unlikely. If Democrats are to secure their newfound hold on Arizona, it will be by convincing voters they can be trusted to keep the state growing, no matter the environmental cost. And then there’s the raw electoral math: If it took Phoenix—in crucial Maricopa County—becoming the fifth-largest city in the country to turn Arizona blue, why would a Democrat stand in the way of continued expansion?

As Petersen, the environmental scholar, put it, “If you start saying, all of a sudden, ‘We’re no longer giving out building permits, we’re no longer allowing multinational companies to build a facility here, we’re shutting down golf courses’—you would have people in the streets rioting.”