IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Water park in Ariz. drought area a wise idea?

Investors in Mesa, Ariz., plan a massive water park offering surf-sized waves, snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking — all in a bone-dry region that gets just 8 inches of rain a year.
Waveyard, desert theme park
This artist illustration shows what part of the proposed Waveyard ocean theme park in Mesa, Ariz., would look like.Waveyard Development / Waveyard Development via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

By tapping rivers and sucking water from deep underground, developers have covered Arizona with carpets of Bermuda grass and dotted the parched landscape with swimming pools, golf courses and lakeshore homes.

Now another ambitious project is in the works: A massive new water park that would offer surf-sized waves, snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking — all in a bone-dry region that gets just 8 inches of rain a year.

"It's about delivering a sport that's not typically available in an urban environment," said Richard Mladick, a Mesa real-estate developer who persuaded business leaders in suburban Mesa to support the proposal called the Waveyard.

Artists' drawings of the park show surfers gliding through waves that crash onto a sandy beach and kayakers navigating the whitecaps of a wide, roiling river. Families watch the action from beneath picnic umbrellas. If constructed, the park would use as much as 100 million gallons of groundwater a year.

Mladick, 39, said he wanted to create the kind of lush environment he remembers from growing up in Virginia Beach, Va., and surfing in Morocco, Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil.

"I couldn't imagine raising my kids in an environment where they wouldn't have the opportunity to grow up being passionate about the same sports that I grew up being passionate about," he said.

The Waveyard, to be built 15 miles east of Phoenix, would dwarf the typical water-slide parks familiar to many Arizona families.

It will include an artificial whitewater river with multiple channels where kayakers can test themselves on Class 2 to Class 4 rapids. Visitors could enjoy an artificial beach and a simulated ocean capable of producing different size waves, from 12-foot barreling waves to tamer chop for boogie boarders.

The 125-acre park will feature a scuba lagoon, a snorkeling pond with reefs and a rock-climbing center.

The Waveyard is envisioned as the summer equivalent of a ski resort — only with more choices, Mladick said. "We really struggle with the theme-park comparison. This is based on skilled sports."

The park will also have restaurants, a shopping district, a spa, and a hotel and conference center.

Jerry Hug, a businessman who co-founded the project, said he expects it will eventually generate more than $1 billion in revenue and create 7,500 jobs. That is especially attractive in Mesa, a city of about 460,000 people that has struggled to keep up with the booming development of its neighbors.

"We don't have a property tax in our city," said Eric Jackson, chairman of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. "It requires us to be very heavily dependent on revenues from sales taxes."

Voters approved tax break
Mesa voters overwhelmingly approved their proposal on Nov. 6, granting the Waveyard an estimated $35 million in tax incentives with more than 65 percent of the vote.

PAGE, AZ - MARCH 26: A barren landscape, the result of a six-year drought that has dramatically dropped the level of the reservoir, surrounds the floating Dangling Rope Marina, reachable only by boat 43 miles from Glen Canyon Dam, at Lake Powell on March 26, 2007 near Page, Arizona. Lake Powell and the next biggest Colorado River reservoir, the nearly 100-year-old Lake Mead, are at the lowest levels ever recorded. Environmentalists have long-lamented the damming of scenic Glen Canyon, the eastern sibling of the Grand Canyon, in the early 1960's to create the 186-mile-long Lake Powell. The US Bureau of Reclamation is evaluating four proposals to manage the drought on the Colorado River which supplies water and power to millions of people in the western states. The bureau has warned that shortages are possible as early as 2010. If the water drops too far, power generators at the dams will become inoperable. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)David Mcnew / Getty Images North America

No citizens groups overtly opposed the project, but its water usage may raise questions in the future as the growing Phoenix areas struggles to replenish its vast aquifer. Arizona has been in a drought for a decade, and rivers that feed Phoenix and surrounding communities experienced near-record low measurements this year.

"Water is a scarce and valued commodity," said Jim Holway, associate director of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

Holway said the Phoenix area currently enjoys huge supplies of underground water. But it's tough to determine exactly how long communities can sustain their rate of water consumption, given that global warming may make the desert even drier.

The Waveyard will need as much as 50 million gallons of water at first to fill its artificial oceans and rivers.

Replenishing water lost to evaporation and spillage will require another 60 to 100 million gallons per year, enough to support about 1,200 people in the Phoenix area.

Vow not to use drinking water
Project organizers say they won't tap Mesa's drinking water supplies to fill the park. Instead, they plan to draw from a well that has elevated levels of arsenic, which makes its water unsuitable for drinking. The Waveyard will build a treatment plant to make the water safe for swimmers.

This artist mock-up shows kayakers navigating the whitecaps of a wide, rumbling river as families look on from underneath picnic umbrellas at the Waveyard ocean theme park in Mesa, Ariz. when the project is complete in 2011. The Waveyard will drain as much as 100 million gallons of groundwater a year in exchange for a half-billion dollars worth of surf-sized waves, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and more on 125 acres in suburban Mesa. (AP Photo/Waveyard Development, LLC)Waveyard Development

Rita Maguire, a former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources who studied water availability for Waveyard developers, said the project will not use any more water than one of Arizona's many golf courses.

"Initially, the reaction is, 'Oh my. Is this an appropriate use of water in a desert?'"

"But recreation is a very important part of a community. And if you can make the use of that water in a highly efficient way, it's a smart choice," she said.

Holway agreed, saying communities could do a better job using water in public spaces "that everybody can enjoy as opposed to having lush yards that we just lock behind fences."

"From that point of view, maybe this is a good thing."