Planning Magazine

Land-Use Policy Could Help Solve the American West’s Water Crisis

As the twin pressures of water shortages and massive growth run the Colorado River dry, planners explore innovative solutions.

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A two-decade drought has dropped water levels so severely in the Colorado River system that a sunken boat sticks out of the water at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nevada. In May, Arizona, California, and Nevada reached an agreement to cut their combined water use by about 13 percent by the end of 2026. Photo by Scott London/Alamy.

The Colorado River has gone by many names, with sobriquets as colorful as its muddy red hue. Navajo call it Nts'ósíkooh, meaning "Slim Water Canyon." Spanish explorers told of the Rio del Tizon, which translates to "River of Embers" or "Firebrand River." Some 19th-century Americans dubbed it the Grand River.

Today, the Colorado is best known as a waterway under threat. In 2021, the Department of the Interior declared a shortage on the river, dried up by drought, overuse, and the persistent ravages of climate change.

"We need to understand that the water budget of the West is changing beneath our feet rapidly," Park Williams, a climate scientist at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times in 2022. "We need to be prepared for a much drier future, and to not rely so much on hope that when it gets wet again, we can just go back to business-as-usual water management."

The river's average annual flow of 14.6 million acre-feet of water (a single acre-foot is the equivalent of a football field-sized pool filled to a depth of one foot) seems significant until you consider how it's divvied up. Roughly 70 percent irrigates crops, especially alfalfa and animal feedstock, while the rest is split between tribal nations, some of the fastest-growing cities and states in the U.S., and two of Mexico's northern states. That is water (and electricity) for about 40 million people.

Today's increasingly dire supply-and-demand crisis, exacerbated by the worst megadrought in a millennia, spawns explosive wildfires, stressed bird populations, dried-out reservoirs, and flows so low that the river nearly hit deadpool (the level at which reservoirs become so parched that the Colorado effectively stops). Residents of the region already see big disruptions to daily life: the Rio Verde Foothills, a community of around 2,000 homes north of Scottsdale, Arizona, faced water shutoffs in February.

Intervention is needed, and fast. With population growth projections what they are — more than a million new residents are expected in Arizona alone by 2030 — federal officials have already hinted that allotment of the Colorado, set through a 1922 compact known as the Law of the River, may change drastically, pushing states and cities to make massive leaps in water conservation and efficiencies.

"Have planners always been trained in water management issues? Not really. That's a skill set that has evolved over the past 20 years."

Bill Cesanek, AICP, CDM Smith

"Planners, because they're involved in making decisions about the built environment, are in a key place right now," says Bill Cesanek, AICP, a planner and vice president for urban and infrastructure planning at CDM Smith, and chair of APA's Water Task Force. "Have planners always been trained in water management issues? Not really. That's a skill set that has evolved over the past 20 years." (Cesanek is also a coauthor of the PAS Report Planners and Water.)

As the twin pressures of growth and shortages continue across the American West, planning innovations are creating new models for water management, resource-first development, and collaboration free of silos.

Water policy defined by drought

In the lower Colorado River basin — California, Arizona, and Nevada — drought is a fact of life reinforced with each subsequent year. In May, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a deal among the three states, where each would agree to cut river water use by 13 percent in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal funding for farmers and tribes, as well as for conservation programs.

The reality of severe drought has reshaped water policy, says Ellen Hanak, vice president and director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. California's severe shortages in the 1970s introduced refined demand management and drought contingency plans, while the drought from 1986 to 1992 pushed utilities to get more serious about reinforcing water supply and investing in resilience.

Notably, pioneering water regulations at the federal level, like 1977's Clean Water Act, weren't in place for much of the nation's pre-war and mid-century building boom. That means smart water management didn't factor into rapid suburban expansion. But the assumption that water would just be available for housing in exurban areas via groundwater and wells has been radically rethought, with many state laws requiring new projects to prove they have a viable water supply before breaking ground. Local water utilities have interconnected to work together during times of drought, and activities that would taint important groundwater sources have been curtailed.

Threaded with this abbreviated history of water management and policy is the siloed approach different agencies and leaders took — and the impediment that created for conservation. Engineers largely saw water as an issue, particularly in terms of flooding, and designed roads, commercial districts, and infrastructure to whisk it away quickly. Now, sustainability leaders see the value in recovering stormwater and designing green space and residential sites to capture and collect.

Water is scarce and prices have tripled for residents of the unincorporated Rio Verde Foothills neighborhood. Nearby Scottsdale, Arizona, cut off water delivery to the area in February as part of its drought management plan. Photo by Erin Schaff/The New York Times.

Water is scarce and prices have tripled for residents of the unincorporated Rio Verde Foothills neighborhood. Nearby Scottsdale, Arizona, cut off water delivery to the area in February as part of its drought management plan. Photo by Erin Schaff/The New York Times.

Despite tremendous growth across the Colorado River basin, the region has largely seen water usage level off thanks to efficiencies. Quick fixes like swapping out old appliances, upgrading plumbing codes, and increasing systemwide water efficiency have mostly been deployed in more populous states, says Amanda Begley, associate project manager at Tree People, a Los Angeles-based environmental advocacy group. In large swaths of the Southwest, all the water that enters the municipal wastewater system is already reclaimed and reused.

Still, water policy defined by decades of drought is proving insufficient. More sophisticated solutions — and profound changes — are needed.

Development considerations

In many ways, water challenges bolster land use already championed by urban planners, especially around density — building more multistory housing requires fewer resources and leaves more waterways and wetlands undisturbed, a valuable piece of water management and quality.

Planners can take best practices around water policy and meld them with land-use goals to retrofit older buildings and neighborhoods and make choices that support smart growth. Current anxieties over new development in Arizona — such as Buckeye, a Phoenix suburb with 27 master-planned developments in the queue — points to the power planning has to limit unsustainable development. Some of those concerns were realized in June, when Arizona restricted building permits in the Phoenix metro area because of low groundwater supplies. Real estate projects there need to verify 100-year water supplies before getting permitted and often rely on overallocated and limited aquifers.

"Planners need to be mindful that any new construction and any new concrete and hardscape is adding to [urban runoff] and stopping the water from being able to soak in the ground, feed our vegetation, and fill out aquifers," says Tree People's Begley. "Because it's somewhat invisible, people aren't thinking about it until we have a major rain event."

Encouraging better development practices overcomes natural reluctance on the part of developers. Despite water allocations set by state rules and utilities, planners often interface with developers and issue final approval, giving them room to require landscaping, conservation efforts, and building strategies that can make projects more sustainable. In New Mexico, an in-process megadevelopment called Santolina may resubmit its plans to add water reclamation technology and a vast solar installation to allay consumption concerns its estimated 90,000 residents would bring.

Up north in Westminster, Colorado, planners have even decoupled water use from growth to create a preemptive planning process wherein water data informs land use. Instead of using a simple per-capita water usage metric, the city built custom maps that can help inform the best places for multifamily developments or what the impact of a strip mall might be. Planners can look ahead and demand more infrastructure and conservation features from development proposals — or even scrap them altogether if they would use too many resources.

Planners can take best practices around water policy and meld them with land-use goals to retrofit older neighborhoods and support smart growth.

"We didn't want public works to determine how the city developed," Stu Feinglas, Westminster's recently retired senior water-resources analyst, told CityLab. "What we could do is show how much water we have and ask them to be creative and make their development work with that."

Commercial land uses also require extensive consideration. The Phoenix area, where Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company plans to invest $40 billion in a new semiconductor plant, offers numerous examples of planning for high-volume water users. According to Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, highly consumptive plants like these can reclaim roughly 85 percent of the water used. Figuring out the impact of these projects — and how to blunt that with water reclamation — are key to planning and permitting. Cities like Mesa and Chandler in Arizona have already instituted ordinances that help balance out water usage from new commercial tenants.

Landscaping and conservation

Pushing for new regulations around landscaping, water recycling, and stormwater runoff is a key target for water policy, Begley says. A continued trend toward native plantings, drought-tolerant landscapes, large-scale water reclamation and stormwater projects at parks and green spaces, and even bans on nonfunctional turf (the other NFT) will ensure precious drops aren't wasted.

Notably, one of the region's greatest successes comes from an area of excess: Las Vegas, where local planners and the Southern Nevada Water Authority instituted strict programs, rules, and incentives to rip up grass, limit water usage, and ration watering. Today, water use per capita is down 48 percent from 20 years ago.

But across the West, an outgrowth of policy shifts has protective planners and agencies pushing new ideas to cut back on waste and radically increase efficiency. In Los Angeles, the low-impact development ordinance, passed in 2021, mandates stormwater mitigation strategies for new construction. Nearby Orange County, California, particularly vulnerable to droughts and seawater contamination, has pioneered extensive water recycling programs that lessen its reliance on outside resources. And Native American tribes in the region, which have traditionally been dispossessed of their water rights despite federal rulings granting them 22 percent of the Colorado, plan to dedicate new federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to conservation and sustainability (the act gives $4 billion for water management to communities across the basin). The Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, for example, aims to build solar panel shade covers for canals and invest tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure for reclaimed water.

While facing calamitous drought, Tucson, Arizona, developed an award-winning reclaimed water program. In 2021, the customer base of the local utility used the same amount of water as it did in 1990, even with about 200,000 more residents. The strategy — which includes planting one million drought-tolerant trees by 2030, embracing stormwater, and incentivizing homeowners and neighborhood groups to incorporate green infrastructure — has empowered residents. Neighborhood-scale rainwater-harvesting grants and a rebate program that has conserved nearly 200 million gallons of water in a decade show the potential of encouraging better design. The city has even released reclaimed water into the Santa Cruz River, recreating a year-round riverfront and bringing wildlife back to its formerly barren banks.

Orange County, California, relies on extensive water recycling programs, like at this reverse osmosis plant, where wastewater is filtered through membranes before eventually being used to recharge underground aquifers. Photo by Stuart Palley/The New York Times.

Orange County, California, relies on extensive water recycling programs, like at this reverse osmosis plant, where wastewater is filtered through membranes before eventually being used to recharge underground aquifers. Photo by Stuart Palley/The New York Times.

Resident buy-in and input has been key to implementing many of these changes, making community outreach all the more vital. In roughly 102 communities around Los Angeles, Tree People's WaterTalks program conducted needs assessments around water issues. Understanding those needs ahead of time flips the typical development process on its head. Smart planners can budget in stormwater projects and water reclamation for, say, a soccer field city residents want. The alternative — residents feeling like their requests must overcome bureaucracy that impedes new developments and amenities — hurts engagement and efficiency.

"There's been a sense that the public can't possibly understand things," Begley says. "And that's been a major blind spot." As community groups become more informed about water issues, she adds, outreach becomes more successful. In Phoenix, that allows for tackling the complex interplay between water management and other issues impacted by climate change, like extreme heat.

"Our existential threat in the Phoenix area isn't water supply; it's heat," Porter says. "We are kind of the test bed for what happens with the urban heat island, and hopefully urban heat island mitigation. And how do you mitigate heat? Plants are a huge solution, and especially trees, and they need water."

Porter's point is that while water is necessary for growth, that growth can be shaped and directed toward sustainability. Increasingly, planners can't create the kind of city that attracts and supports residents without planning for water at the center of it.

"Do you want to have a Phoenix where you don't have parks and shady trees and walkable corridors?" Porter asks. "That's the kind of water discussion I think planners should be involved in because planners inform so much of that."

Patrick Sisson is a Los Angeles–based writer and reporter focused on the tech, trends, and policies that shape cities.