On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up the soil
With our teardrops
And our toil
--Gordon Lightfoot (Canadian Railroad Trilogy)
That people can move to the Salt River Valley from the Midwest and turn on a reliable tap or jump in a shimmering swimming pool, never even wondering where the water originates, is testimony to the mighty acts and sacrifices of previous generations. Their spirit and grit are lost, not only in Arizona but probably all around an enervated America.
Today's transplants would never know it, but they live in one of the world's great fertile river valleys. But unlike the Nile and Euphrates, the Salt is dangerously unpredictable. It floods. It dries up to nearly nothing. In the end, it destroyed the most advanced hydraulic society north of the Aztecs, which we call the Hohokam.
It very nearly did the same to the Americans who found the valley after the Civil War, having sat there empty for centuries as if providentially awaiting them. Even some of the Hohokam canals were intact, needing only to be cleaned out by the newcomers. But the river had its own harsh logic. The territorial "lifestyle," as related by my grandmother, was unbelievably primitive, even at the end of the 19th century -- always dependent on the river's tricks. Phoenix might never have risen from the ashes.
This changed with the Newlands Act of 1902, which launched the federal government into the business of reclaiming arid Western lands. The first major enterprise was the Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River and what became the Salt River Project, with its network of dams and canals. Roosevelt Dam, especially, was built against tremendous obstacles and the technology of the 1900s essentially copied Hohokam methods, but on a vast and advanced scale. It was also made possible because the farmers in the Valley collectively pledged their properties as collateral to what seemed like a risky scheme -- taming the Salt River. (For a wonderful and all-but-forgotten memoir of these early days see The House by the Buckeye Road by Helen Seargeant.)
While the Newlands Act intended to encourage agriculture, it was also naked social engineering. In the Salt River Valley, it intended to create a Jeffersonian democracy of small farmers to relieve the demographic pressure of the gritty, crowded cities of the East. Things didn't work out that way. There were small farmers, such as my family. But loopholes allowed the gradual aggregation of large and powerful landowners, with the say on the Salt River Valley Water Users Association. As I have written before: In the desert, water is power.
Yet reclamation always held a largely unspoken tension. It asked the farmers of the East and Midwest to subsidize their competition (and in the decades ahead, a debate would rage -- largely suppressed in Phoenix -- about the economics and environmental efficacy of this). And what a competition it became: With the river under control and the snowmelt in reservoirs, the Salt River Valley became one of the nation's major agricultural centers. At its height in the early 1960s, nearly 600,000 acres were under cultivation. Mile-long trains of citrus, vegetables and feedlot grains left Phoenix for all over the country. The valley lived by the rhythm of flood irrigation.
The empire builders were not content. Seeing California grab the water of the Colorado River, the young state of Arizona began the decades-long effort to win its rights to the water and build the Central Arizona Project. Two excellent books on this come from my friend Jack August, Vision in the Desert, on the seminal role of Sen. Carl Hayden, and Dividing Western Waters, on the great lawyer Mark Wilmer. (A disclaimer: My mother, Vivian Talton, worked for the Arizona Interstate Stream Commission and was involved at the height of the titanic Arizona v. California court battle).
The logic behind the CAP (and it's pronounced C-A-P, not "cap") would not persuade today. It was partly a state water rights issue, partly an effort by the agricultural interests to extend their reach and gain what they thought was an even more reliable water supply. This was especially true for growers in Pinal and Pima counties and the Harquahala Valley, who were pumping out ground water. It was a product of the era of great dam building and its mindset. That was fading even when Arizona prevailed in the Supreme Court in 1963. Glen Canyon Dam had been a near thing -- in retrospect, it seems an ill-advised project -- and the Sierra Club led the defeat of two dams proposed virtually inside the Grand Canyon.
But by the early 1960s, the CAP developed a further impetus: to provide water for population growth. Phoenix had grown from 100,000 in 1950 to 439,170 in 1960. There was never a sense among the leadership that subdivisions would replace agriculture as the Valley's raison d'etre. As it dawned on some of them, they were profoundly torn. But the growth machine grew rapidly and became a powerful CAP advocate. The CAP was built.
Now the agriculture is mostly gone and with it both a valuable export -- which will become more important as the global food supply chain comes under pressure -- and the cooling effect of half a million acres of fields and citrus groves. And central Arizona faces a profound water crisis.
There is no willingness on the part of the local elite to discuss it. And it's highly complex: It can't be boiled down to "Phoenix doesn't have enough water" or "Phoenix is running out of water." But I can tell them: You're not fooling anyone. I've heard influential national real estate people say those very things. The Great Water Coverup is not helping anyone, except the short-term profits of the Real Estate Industrial Complex and the tourism industry.
The problem is essentially this: Metro Phoenix does not have enough water to continue growing at the rate, and in the form, that it has done since 1960. This is especially true in Pinal County and west of the White Tanks. Arizona's water problems are even more dire, with wildcat subdivisions that lack reliable water, mad groundwater depletion and a grab of Verde River water that might only be stopped by the Salt River Project (very quietly, still, the kingdom and the power).
Behind the crisis is more than putting 4 million people into a place never meant to hold such a large city, more than sprawl.
First, the Colorado is oversubscribed -- too many straws at this drinking hole -- and its allocations were made during a period of unusually high water flows. The Upper Basin is not going to allowed itself to get screwed again by Arizona (which was reinforced to me when I lived in Denver and locals would ask where I was from). Settlement of Indian water claims makes the Gila River Pimas a powerful new player -- and they're not going to subsidize sprawl. Second, the CAP canal can only hold so much water, and the taxpayers aren't going to build another ditch (even if the water existed). Third, ground-water pumping continues apace, which is both unsustainable and could turn the lush Sonoran Desert into a Mojave. Fourth, climate change is already reducing snowmelt, an ominous development -- a game ender.
I have no confidence in the enforcement of ground-water regulations by the state, which is controlled by the Real Estate Industrial Complex. (And the active water management areas are not even statewide). I have no confidence in the gamed hydrological studies that show Buckeye can have half a million people or more. The old saw about how "homes" were a more efficient use of water than agriculture now strains credulity -- what about the lost cooling effect? what about the swimming pools and golf courses? Dreams of desalination plants and other technological bailouts in some unspecified future are unpersuasive, especially for a dead-broke, anti-research state and a much poorer America.
Indeed -- and it pains me to say it, being a child of Arizona v. California -- some of the arguments California made in the '50s and '60s against the CAP were correct. It's unsustainable. (Of course, pot meet kettle).
If I could wave a wand, I would have preserved a relatively contained city surrounded by agriculture and never built the CAP. Now, I would create a dense city within the footprint of the SRP and its relatively stable (we hope) renewable (we hope) water supplies. You know how awful density is -- think Paris. But I don't possess that wand, and the only thing now saving central Arizona is the real-estate depression.
But these water realities cannot be wished away. They cannot be avoided through denial and suppression. When I was a child, I was always reminded of the Hohokam and the lessons of their fall. On nights when the breeze and atmospherics were just right, I was sure I could hear their ghosts wandering the timeless river valley. They are still there.
Read more Phoenix 101.