Water and the American Southwest have long shared a tenuous relationship. It is no secret that water demand in desert cities like Phoenix cannot be met entirely from local sources and therefore, water must be imported from sources sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away. These imported sources have historically provided an abundance of water that has allowed the Southwest to grow faster than nearly any other region of the county. But now, in the midst of a 20-year drought that is historical due to pressure on sources like the Colorado River, local and regional water resource managers are now considering actions that may limit the way that we allocate our water. Last month, the City of Phoenix declared a Stage 1 Water Alert. Many other municipalities within the metro area are beginning to follow suit. Residents and businesses are encouraged to make voluntary reductions to be more water responsible. If drought conditions persist long-term, cities will have the authority to broadly regulate water use, rather than simply encourage it.

New residential and non-residential development in Phoenix should take the lead in planning for this uncertain future by coming up with water-reducing solutions that reduce demand.  Many cities already have significant infrastructure in place that reuses water from our drains for aquifer recharge, open space irrigation, cooling our local power plants (the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station uses up to 26 billion gallons of treated wastewater per year) and other uses. But outdoor water use, which accounts for the majority of household water use, cannot be recaptured and repurposed. What design options will be available for outdoor spaces as we enter into a more water-restrictive future? And what meaningful practices can be sensibly implemented to keep our communities attractive, livable and sustainable?

  1. Perhaps the most practical, and most common-sense modification is to focus more on vegetation that is native to the southern desert, and therefore more apt to survive the stresses of low water cycles without the need for ongoing irrigation. Non-native species are so common because they provide a lush look or a thick canopy for shading – an aesthetic that residents of the Valley have come to expect in their communities as a respite from the harsh desert environment.  Extensiveness of these non-native planting types that typically require more water could be limited to targeted areas where they are most impactful.
  2. Turf restrictions in community common areas and yards will likely be an area of focus for municipalities seeking meaningful water-use reductions. The City of Las Vegas, which has far fewer water resources than Phoenix, adopted ordinance restrictions on turf use over two decades ago and has seen appreciable residential water reductions. The emergence of high-quality artificial turf products has provided new alternatives to traditional grass for homeowners, business owners and HOAs.
  3. Although not widespread, the use of smart irrigation controllers by HOAs and individual homeowners can provide an additional reduction on outdoor water use. These controllers  monitor local weather and even soil moisture to adjust when and where to appropriately irrigate.

Although our municipal water sources are well managed and long-term plans are in place, no one knows whether the current drought is a cycle that will lead us into wetter years or if the current shortages are a reality of our longer-term future. Without this insight, and with the expectation that City and State leaders are likely to elevate the emphasis on “responsible water use” in the coming months, it is important to anticipate these forthcoming policy changes and implement in ways that allow our desert communities to remain some of the most desirable and attractive communities in the country.