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Is there enough water for all of Douglas Ranch?

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Posted at 10:30 PM, Dec 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-11 14:58:01-05

DOUGLAS RANCH, AZ — Amid an ongoing housing shortage in Maricopa County, a west Phoenix developer said it is preparing to break ground on one of the largest master-planned communities in the country.

Douglas Ranch, located in north Buckeye, has plans to build 100,000 homes over the next 40 years.

In October, JDM Partners, of which former Suns and Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo is part-owner, announced that it sold 37,000 acres to Howard Hughes Corporation to develop for $600 million.

Colangelo's company retains part ownership of Trillium which is a neighboring property that is slated to be the first village in Douglas Ranch.

"It was never a matter of if, it was when, you know? How soon would this take place?" Colangelo told ABC15.

The area is roughly bordered by Cactus Road to the south, Jomax Road to the north, Sun Valley Parkway to the east, and 379th Ave to the west.

"I think the easiest way to think about it is it's three times the size of the island of Manhattan," Howard Hughes Corporation CEO David O'Reilly told ABC15.

Plans are to have homes for purchase and rent.

"We're going to make sure that it is diverse, inclusive, and affordable across all price points," he said.

The eventual goal is to house 300,000 residents and build out 55 million square feet of commercial space. O'Reilly described it as it being its own city within a city.

"We can give them (people who live there) connectivity to nature. We can give them great outdoor spaces, we can give them shopping, dining and entertainment and a short commute to their office right down the street in an enclosed environment that's unparalleled anywhere else in the country," O'Reilly said.

A development of that size requires a lot of water. O'Reilly said they will get it from the ground.

"Douglas Ranch sits right on top of the lower Hassayampa aquifer, which will primarily be our source of water," he said.

But developments and municipalities that primarily rely exclusively on groundwater are a concern for environmental groups. Sandy Bahr with the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter said continued reliance on groundwater for growth is unsustainable in the desert.

"When you pump groundwater excessively, you get things like land subsidence, and Earth fissures, these cracks in the ground, and you can't fix that after," Bahr said.

For any new subdivision, a builder must be able to prove an assured water supply that can sustain the development for at least 100 years, according to the 1980 Arizona Groundwater Management Act. Certification is granted by the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR).

But because of prolonged drought and cuts to Colorado River allocations, Bahr said that is becoming more difficult to do. She said surface water to replenish the water that is pumped from the ground is becoming more limited in Arizona.

"Arizona cities like Buckeye should be looking at much more modest growth and really thinking about that water use. Deep conservation," Bahr told ABC15.

And there are concerns that the Hassayampa basin may not be as plentiful as once thought. A report from the Kyl Center for Water Policy released in May 2021 showed there is a possibility that the amount of groundwater in the basin is "considerably less than ADWR currently estimates."

The report also noted that some of what's left in the ground may not be useable.

"It is quite likely that not all of the groundwater in storage can be accessed or used due to impermeable layers, poor quality, or ongoing pumping by non-assured water supply groundwater users," the report said.

ADWR is currently conducting updated modeling on the basin.

"This is too big, too much," Bahr said. "Not the kind of development we should be doing in the Sonoran Desert."

Howard Hughes Corporation told ABC15 it knows how to operate sustainably in the desert. Summerlin, its master-planned community in Las Vegas, has been around since 1990 and still has room to grow.

"We've been ahead of the curve and been building much further beyond just the local regulations saving over [100 million] gallons of water a year in Summerlin," O'Reilly said. "We're going to be able to employ those exact same technologies."

According to ADWR records, a Certificate of Assured Water Supply has already been issued to the project's first phase, Trillium for 7,021 lots. That means the supply is assured for at least 100 years as required by the Groundwater Management Act.

"I think that we should have homes on the ground in 2022 for new residents to move in," O'Reilly said.

An additional 97,000 lots have been issued an analysis of assured water supply, according to state documents. That process is used to prove the criteria required for certification of adequate supply.