Arizona’s Harquahala Valley is nothing like an oasis.cactus cactus, The country’s symbols dot its vast swathes of scrubland. Vehicles are driving on the muddy road, dusty.With an average annual rainfall of 127 mm, it is one of the driest regions in the United States
But as any water director will tell you, it’s what lies beneath the Harkwahara Desert that matters: an aquifer big enough to keep every faucet and factory in Phoenix running for more than six years.
That’s one reason Canadian companies investing in Arizona’s water resources see potential profits amid a drought that has become so severe that the state may soon see its allocation of Colorado River water cut by a quarter , and possibly even more. Edmonton-based EPCOR is the state’s largest private water utility. Liberty Utilities, owned by Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp., based in Oakville, Ontario. AQN-T, ranked second or third depending on the indicator.
“Water scarcity presents opportunities as well as challenges. It requires expertise that we believe we can make a difference,” said EPCOR CEO Stuart Lee.
Today, about 20 percent of the utility’s business is in the United States. Growth spending could push that to 30% by 2028, sir. Lee said. “One of the reasons you’re seeing Canadian utilities start investing in the U.S. is more opportunity.” When it comes to water, “the demand is there and has to be met from some source at some point.”
Part of that may include delivering water—or, more simply, building pipelines to carry it. EPCOR already does this in Texas, where it is the operator and 5 percent owner of the 228-kilometer Vista Ridge pipeline, a $540 million pipeline that carries a fifth of San Antonio’s water.
“We’re taking that same approach to Arizona, where we’re looking for water outside the city center” — like Harquahala, which provides water and wastewater for nearly 800,000 people in Arizona, said Joe Gysel, president of EPCOR’s US division service, New Mexico and Texas.Other potential projects include raising the Bartlett Dam on the Verde River northeast of Phoenix; building a desalination plant offshore Cortez, Mexico, and piped water to Arizona; desalination of the state’s brackish water supply.
Studies of each option are underway after Arizona allocated $1.2 billion this summer for water conservation and enhancement. Two-thirds of that will be used to find new water supplies for the state, which has historically relied on the Colorado River for more than one-third of its needs. But rapidly falling water levels in the Colorado Basin are forcing cuts. Arizona’s quota will be reduced by 21 percent by 2022. Unless it’s a very wet year, it may be further restricted. Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the project could reduce water supply by 50 percent in Central Arizona, the canal that serves about four-fifths of the state’s population.
Lake Mead, key to hydration for 40 million people in the American Southwest, is approaching the “dead pool,” the level at which water can no longer flow through the Hoover Dam.
“We’re going to have to improve hydrology — improve runoff — or we’re going to have to drastically reduce water use across the Colorado River Basin,” Mr. Colorado River Basin said. Buchatsk said.
For years, utilities have tried to convince homeowners to use less water. Arizona boasts that it now uses less water than it did six years ago, despite a sevenfold increase in population.
Liberty Utilities said customers have saved water by installing water sensors on their sprinkler systems, which stop watering when it rains. One homeowners’ association saved 3.8 million liters of water in eight months using three of the devices, says Sara Alloway, the company’s water efficiency manager.
“Outreach is a big thing,” she said. But, she added, “we don’t want to cause mass panic.”
Other states have mandated protections. Nevada law requires the removal of all “non-functional” turf — sod in medians, parking lots, etc. — by 2026. Arizona has sidestepped such requests. “One of the things we’ve found in Arizona is that people want to be able to live the life they want here,” she said. Alloway said. “People want to provide their dog or their kids some place to play and be entertained.”
That means lawns and pools absorb about 60 percent of Arizona’s Liberty pumps. “Very few people use it at home,” said Matthew Garlick, Liberty’s vice president of special projects. “It’s mostly in the front or the back.”
It might be time for a change.
gentlemen. Buschatzke is president of the Arizona Water Banking Authority, which stores water for later use. In September, he suggested to water utilities that banks might refuse to release water to them unless there was a significant reduction in outdoor water use. They were “not particularly interested” in the idea, he said. Buschatzke stopped watering his lawn this summer and plans to have it removed soon.
That’s not his only controversial water idea. He also wanted to see how much people were paying for water.State law requires water rates to be “fair and reasonable,” but never defines what that means. “Water prices are going to go up in our state. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.
This is a requirement if new water is to be found.
Today, the median water rate in Phoenix is about $800 per acre-foot, enough to supply three single-family homes for a year. Recent studies estimate the cost of desalinating brackish water at $1,500 to $2,000 per acre foot; fetching water from the Sea of Cortez at $2,000 to $2,200; shipping from Harquahala at $1,800 to $2,000 per acre foot water. (Even conservation measures like rainwater harvesting systems can cost upwards of $1,100 per acre-foot; cloud seeding is one of the cheapest solutions at hundreds of dollars per acre-foot).
Cost is only one of the obstacles. Laws need to be changed to allow private companies to mine Harquahala, and the water cannot be shipped out of Mexico without an international treaty.
But Mr. Buschatzke believes Arizona has reached a tipping point where its water problems have become so severe that change once considered difficult is becoming possible.
Still, objections persist. Pumping water from Harquahala has turned it into a “sacrifice zone,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. Local water users object to using the aquifer to supply water to Phoenix. Mrs. Bahr is generally skeptical of private companies, including EPCOR. “They basically do what’s best for their bottom line. And that can and sometimes does mean that people get hurt in the process. And land.”
“We should be looking for ways to live within our means,” she said.
Some of this work is also in progress. South of Luke Air Force Base northeast of Phoenix, EPCOR and Liberty Utilities both operate treatment plants less than a kilometer apart that purify wastewater and use it to replenish the aquifer below.
The shoulder-to-shoulder action illustrates how Canadian companies are on the front lines of America’s water crisis. Land in the area has sunk by at least 7 meters since the late 1940s, mainly due to agricultural irrigation. Today, people pay more attention to protecting water resources. EPCOR’s plant alone cost $48 million and returns 6.6 million liters of water to the ground every day.
Operations manager Rick Alvarez marveled at the clarity of the water coming out of the treatment plant, a thin stream that settles in the dirt before draining into the aquifer below.
“You have to respect the water,” he said, “not abuse it.”