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  • Insatiable Thirst and a Finite Supply: An Assessment of Municipal Water-Conservation Policy in Greater Phoenix, Arizona, 1980–2007
  • Kelli L. Larson (bio), Annie Gustafson (bio), and Paul Hirt (bio)

The availability of freshwater for human consumption, agricultural production, economic development, and a variety of ecosystem services is at the forefront of global concerns regarding the sustainable use of natural resources. Worldwide, 70 percent of water is used for agricultural irrigation, while more than one billion people lack adequate water for their essential needs.1 Water management is complicated by rural migration and rapid growth in dense cities, where supplying water to meet increasing demands is a significant challenge. Much of this urban growth is occurring in relatively arid regions, from the Far East to the American Southwest, necessitating special attention to water policies in desert metropolitan regions.

Over the last century, the world has experienced a sixfold increase in water consumption—twice the rate of population growth. 2 Although the [End Page 107] minimum amount of water needed for basic human uses is estimated at five to eight gallons per person daily, rates of consumption far exceed basic needs in developed nations. Water demand also varies widely, from thirty-four gallons per capita daily (GPCD) in Germany to more than one hundred in the United States. Even within the United States, water consumption varies significantly from place to place, with some of the highest rates in southwestern Sunbelt cities such as Phoenix, Arizona. Illusions of abundance are prevalent in desert cities throughout the American Southwest, despite the semi-arid climate, recurring droughts, and ultimately limited water supplies.3

In metropolitan Phoenix, the focus of this article, the proliferation of hyper-green golf courses, human-made lakes, and well-watered lawns sustains a historic pattern of perpetuating an artificially lush oasis in defiance of the native Sonoran Desert ecosystem.4 The resultant high water-use rates not only far exceed national averages but also substantially exceed consumption in more conservation-minded desert cities nearby, such as Tucson, which has an average water-use rate of 172 gallons per capita daily compared to 230 GPCD in Phoenix.5 Ironically, these high rates of consumption persist today despite nearly three decades of conservation efforts mandated by the Arizona Groundwater Management Act (GMA) of 1980. Herein we examine the weakening of this often-heralded state water law, focusing on the mandate to achieve “reasonable reductions in per capita use” in the state’s capital and central urban region.6

Although the GMA was designed to end groundwater overdraft by 2025, in part through progressively more efficient water-use standards, our findings reveal that the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the state legislature, and the municipal water providers in metropolitan Phoenix have steadily eroded conservation standards and made woefully inadequate progress toward reducing urban water demand. These changes not only counteract state legislative goals, but they also defy repeated calls by Governor Janet Napolitano to establish a “culture of conservation” in Arizona.7 Instead, our research shows that a libertarian culture of consumption remains firmly in place and is evident in high water-use rates, weakened regulations for reducing water demands, perpetual attention to the utilization (not conservation) of renewable water, and continued searches for additional water supplies to support growth and economic development.

Conservation, or the reduction of water use through enhanced efficiency, is becoming an increasingly important component of sustainable resource management.8 Water importation and supply augmentation have been the [End Page 108] traditional response to water scarcity in the American West, but such opportunities are increasingly problematic. The hunt for additional water supplies cannot go on forever, especially given the environmental, social, and economic costs of giant water development projects.9 In the face of limited supplies, conservation (also referred to as demand management in this paper) is an integral part of sustainable water use in urban areas. Accordingly, we focus on the historic changes in municipal conservation policy between the passage of the GMA in 1980 and today (2008). Before empirically demonstrating the weak, declining commitment to conservation in metropolitan Phoenix, we first set the stage for our analysis by describing the severity of the area’s resource problems...