Water Wars in the Modern Wild West

7 13+UPZ

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.

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