Brett Fleck does not have an easy job. He manages water for a city in the desert. He has to keep taps flowing while facing a complicated equation: Peoria is growing – attracting big business and thousands of new residents each year – but its main source of water is shrinking. Does Arizona have enough water? Does Fleck have an answer?

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Standing on the edge of a sun-baked canal with palm trees lining its banks, Fleck watched water flow into the pipes that supply the Phoenix suburb.

“We’re really having a complete changeover in how people view the Colorado River from a reliability standpoint,” he said.

The river, which accounts for about 60% of the city’s supply, is stretched thin. Its water is used by 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. Climate change is shrinking its supply, and the federal government is scrambling to boost depleted reservoirs. The Biden administration has poured money into the problem, allocating $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act for Colorado River projects.

Across the seven U.S. states that use the river’s water, that money has been used to save water in a number of ways – from patching up leaky canals to paying farmers to pause crop planting. A relatively small chunk of the money has gone to cities, but it’s being welcomed with open arms in the Phoenix metro area.

Peoria’s water department is one of seven in Arizona getting paid by the federal government to leave some of its supplies in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. In May 2023, the Biden administration announced it would set aside $157 million for a handful of Arizona cities and one mining company to cut back on their take from the Colorado River.

The Biden administration framed the spending effort as “water conservation,” but Arizona’s municipal water leaders aren’t using it to make changes traditionally thought of as conservation. Instead of paying for small tweaks to water use – like encouraging residents to install low-flow showerheads or rip out their thirsty lawns – many are thinking bigger, putting their multimillion dollar checks towards billion dollar infrastructure projects that are aimed at keeping taps flowing for decades to come and engineering their way out of the problem.

“When you don’t have that reliability,” Fleck said, “You have to make additional investments for alternatives, backup supplies, etc. That’s what it really takes to make sense of the world that we live in now.”

A changing mindset

The sprawling Phoenix metro area is home to about 5 million people. A booming economy and suburban sprawl are pushing its borders further into once-unoccupied dusty expanses in nearly every direction. Meanwhile, climate change has inspired growing skepticism about the long-term sustainability of that growth.

Scorching temperatures, which consistently peak above 110 degrees in the summer, and threats to its major sources of water, have accelerated calls for central Arizona to pump the brakes on expansion.

But the people that run water departments in cities and suburbs in the area project optimism.

“We have to plan ahead and say, ‘It’s not enough to have enough water to live this year, this month, two years or five years,” said Cynthia Campbell, a water management advisor for the city of Phoenix. “We plan for 100, and that’s the way we’ve approached it in Arizona. That, I think, is the secret sauce that keeps us sustainable.”

Campbell described shifting attitudes in Phoenix-area water management. Dwindling water supplies have, for years, forced those cities to do more with less. She explained how Phoenix uses less water now than it did two decades ago, despite significant population growth. The city mostly chalks that up to more efficient water use by homes and businesses, specifically highlighting water that was conserved through more efficient outdoor watering for lawns and plants.

But now, those practices are getting closer to the ceiling in terms of how much water they can save, and new residents keep arriving.

“At some point in time, there does have to be a recognition of the scope of the problem,” Campbell said. “You just can’t conserve your way out of it.”

That mindset has put one word on the lips of many water managers in central Arizona: augmentation.

Engineering a way to more water

“Augmentation” generally means water departments are focused on adding new water supplies, rather than just using less of the water they already have.

Peoria and Phoenix water leaders highlighted two expensive infrastructure projects that fall into the augmentation category. The first is a massive renovation of a nearby dam that would make its reservoir bigger, allowing cities in the area to store more water during wet winters.

The Bartlett Dam holds back a reservoir about an hour’s drive northeast of Phoenix. Over time, the reservoir has gotten shallower, as sediment in the water settles to the bottom and piles up, reducing the amount of water storage. Bartlett Reservoir and nearby Horseshoe Reservoir have lost a combined 45,000 acre-feet of their total holding capacity. By comparison, Peoria, a city of nearly 200,000 people, gets a total of 35,000 acre-feet of water delivered each year.

Because the reservoirs reach capacity more quickly, water managers have been forced to release excess water instead of storing it for dryer times. A proposed expansion of the dam would make it easier to store that water by making Bartlett Dam about 100 feet taller. Peoria and Phoenix are among 22 cities, tribes and farm districts that are interested in chipping in for the project, which is projected to cost about $1 billion.

The dam holds back water from the Verde River, part of the broader Salt River watershed, whose supplies are managed separately from the Colorado River. But increasing the amount of stored water from that system could help cities ease up on their Colorado River reliance.

A second idea that falls into the augmentation category represents an entirely different way of “adding” water to the system, and it’s part of a regional trend: cleaning up sewage and making it drinkable water again.

Water managers refer to the practice as “advanced water purification,” or “wastewater recycling,” and it’s stirring up a lot of excitement – and big investment – in a number of places that share similar anxieties about shrinking supplies from the Colorado River.

Small cities are eyeing the expensive new technology for the future, and big ones are already putting shovels in dirt.

In Phoenix, the city council greenlit a $300 million construction project to revive a shuttered water treatment plant in the city’s far northern reaches, which officials said would lay the groundwork for installing equipment to turn wastewater into clean drinking water.

Elsewhere in the Colorado River basin, big cities are forging ahead with the practice. In the Los Angeles metro area, the main water distributor proposed a $3.4 billion wastewater recycling facility, and has rallied hundreds of millions of dollars in support from out-of-state water agencies that could buy California’s unused Colorado River water if the new facility is a success. In Colorado, the state government passed first-of-its-kind legislation that would make it easier for cities to bring the new water treatment tech online, and some cities say they’re three to five years away from building it.

Beneath the surface

Phoenix-area water managers have to account for water from a few sources, each with different challenges.

The Colorado River, which mostly begins as snowmelt in the faraway Rocky Mountains, comes to the metro via the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal that cuts through the desert. The Salt and Verde rivers bring snow and runoff from a watershed that covers the colder, higher-altitude parts of Arizona. And one source starts much closer to home: groundwater.

That last water source, at least recently, has proven the trickiest to manage. Groundwater use and management have become hot-button political issues in Arizona as experts raise alarms about underground stores of water that are shrinking fast, including some that, once drained, would take generations to refill.

Water experts say all of the most pressing water issues facing Arizona cities – the shrinking Colorado River, the overtaxed underground aquifers and work to augment existing supplies – are pieces of a bigger puzzle.

Kathryn Sorensen, a former director of water departments in Phoenix and Mesa, said Colorado River shortages will probably turn up the pressure on groundwater.

“Our aquifers, while large and plentiful, are also fossil aquifers, so if we pump them out too quickly, then it’s just gone,” said Sorensen, who now researches water policy at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “So these types of things like advanced water purification, augmentation, additional conservation efforts – those all play into avoiding the use of those fossil groundwater supplies.”

Sorensen described the groundwater supplies – and whether or not they’re managed sustainably – as pivotally important to Arizona’s long-term future.

“If we’re going to continue to have the sort of economic opportunities we have here and the quality of life that we have here a few generations from now,” she said, “it’s really of utmost importance that we protect groundwater today.”

‘There’s not a lot of gambling going on here’

Groundwater has become the latest issue to help fuel a wave of national attention on the long-term viability of Phoenix as a place for people to live.

Articles with headlines like “How long can the world’s ‘least sustainable’ city survive?” have helped to crystalize nationwide skepticism about central Arizona’s future. In 2023, state officials put a pause on some new subdivisions because they couldn’t draw enough water from underground. The announcement launched a flurry of news coverage. The New York Times framed it as “the beginning of the end” for development around Phoenix.

In that article, Gov. Katie Hobbs is quoted as saying, “We are not out of water, and we will not be running out of water.”

Hobbs and other leaders in the state have been forced into a bit of a juggling act. Some are trying to advocate for policies that respond to the Phoenix area’s water supply crunch while simultaneously trying to tamp down fears that the Valley might not be a good place to live and work.

Campbell, who advises Phoenix’s political leaders on water decisions, said she’s confident that people who buy a house or open a business in Phoenix will have water in the future because policymakers are feeling a lot of pressure to make sure growth is sustainable.

“They know that the moment there’s a crack in the armor, the moment that we have to turn off a tap, every national media outlet will cover it, and it will have a devastating effect on our economy. So there’s not a lot of gambling going on here,” she said.

What ‘sustainable’ growth looks like

Sustainable growth certainly weighs on the mind of Fleck, the water manager in Peoria.

The city itself touted its status as one of the nation’s top “boomtowns,” growing by 19% in the five-year stretch between 2016 and 2021. It recently paved the way for a massive, $2 billion microchip operation. Amkor Technology’s 56-acre facility in Peoria is set to be the nation’s largest semiconductor packaging and test facility, and will likely use a massive amount of water.

“Do I think Arizona can continue to grow sustainably? As long as we continue to make the investments and plan, absolutely,” he said. “The day that we stop making those investments in our sustainability is the day that we probably shouldn’t be growing anymore.”

Fleck said his city is working with Amkor to create a system that brings recycled water to the facility, so the semiconductor operation doesn’t draw from the drinking supply.

At a water treatment plant on Peoria’s western edge, the city’s water system is getting upgraded in real time, and the facility is quickly expanding its footprint.

“This water reclamation facility is really the start of Peoria’s water future,” Fleck said as workers in hard hats crisscrossed the dirt expanse behind him.

Treated water from the plant could see a few fates, Fleck said. It may be pumped into underground storage, sent to the giant new microchip facility, or maybe even purified to drinking standards and sent back into pipes. The latter is probably a decade from reality.

“It’s all based on funding,” Fleck said.

Now that cities around Arizona are seeing the promise of new technology and methods to get more out of their endangered water supplies, the massive cost of those projects stands as the biggest hurdle to their implementation. Fleck said the billions of federal dollars being sent to remedy the Southwest’s water woes pale in comparison to the tens or hundreds of billions needed to build needed infrastructure.

“Unfortunately, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “However, at least we’re headed in the right direction. So at least we’re making those investments, and we’re recognizing that we need to make those investments to pivot away from our very large reliance on Colorado River supplies.”

Armed with a combination of federal, state and local money, cities in the Valley are moving in that direction. Tempe, for example, has similar plans to Peoria and plans to open a water recycling facility by 2025. Nearby Scottsdale hosts one of only three water treatment facilities in the nation that is part of a pilot program for advanced water purification and is poised to bring it into regular use.

An uncertain future

Arizona’s city leaders say they’re doing all they can to fend off anxiety about an uncertain future for water supply. But two big factors contributing to that anxiety are largely out of their hands.

The first is funding. Large-scale, high-tech water projects that come with nine- or 10-figure price tags benefit greatly from federal help. The Biden administration has spent an amount of money that one water expert called, “the largest investment in drinking water infrastructure and water supply infrastructure that we’ve seen in a generation.”

Future administrations might not be so spendy.

“Federal funding is always a dicey proposition,” said Sorensen, the ASU water researcher. “Relying on annual appropriations, it can be hinky, especially when you have to compete with other very worthy federal priorities.”

The second cause for uncertainty is the messy, ongoing negotiation process that will result in new rules for sharing the Colorado River. The current rules for divvying up its water expire in 2026, and the people in charge of writing new ones are stuck in a heated standoff.

Those people are negotiators from the seven states that use its water. Despite their differences, they generally agree that climate change has shrunk the amount of water in the river, and states need to cut back on demand accordingly.

But every proposed cutback plan, even the one co-signed by Arizona itself, puts more of the state’s water on the chopping block than any other state.

That is due to a system called prior appropriation, which serves as the bedrock of Colorado River management. In short, it means that the first person to use water will be the last to lose it in times of shortage. And when it comes to Colorado River use, Arizona sits in a more vulnerable legal position.

The canal that carries water to central Arizona from the Colorado River was authorized in 1968, and the users who depend on its water are first in line to have their water taken away when reservoirs are low.

Sorensen said that fact is a major motivator for Arizona’s water leaders to make sure they manage supplies in a sustainable way.

“We’ve known since 1968 that our water was first to be cut when there wasn’t enough to go around, and that has made us prepare very methodically for those cuts,” Sorensen said. “The pressure has certainly been turned up, but it’s pressure that’s always existed.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. It was produced in partnership with The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.