I have been hesitant to pass along recent stories about water. Some examples, "Arizona Cities Could Face Cutbacks in Water From Colorado River," from the New York Times; "Phoenix May Not Survive Climate Change" on Salon; "America is Running Out of Water," from Vice; "Arizona May Be California's Future" on Slate, and this Tucson Weekly examination of the situation in the Old Pueblo.
Oh, and from Smithsonian (!): "Arizona Could Be Out of Water in Six Years."
Water in Arizona is a highly complex issue. It risks being spun as "everything's fine!" by the boosters, lied about by real-estate hustlers and their stooges, or oversimplified as "Phoenix is about to run out of water!" by outside observers. So let me tiptoe in with a reminder of this Phoenix 101 primer, and then...
Some things we know:
1. As with so much else, Arizona is not Phoenix. Even the farthest-flung reaches of the metropolitan area are not the old city. In other words, each part of the state has distinct water issues.
2. Phoenix is not Death Valley with subdivisions. In fact, the Salt River Valley, sitting in and near the confluence of multiple rivers, is the most abundantly watered place in the Southwest. The Sonoran Desert is the planet's wettest desert. This is why the Phoenix area has attracted irrigation civilizations going back perhaps 3,000 years. Phoenix is a natural oasis.
3. Thanks to this and the billions of federal dollars spent on reclamation projects in the first half of the 20th century, the core of Phoenix is blessed with nearby renewable water supplies. The dams and lakes of the Salt River Project delivered 767,445 acre feet to the project's footprint in 2012 and held nearly 1.5 million acre feet in the reservoirs in fiscal 2013. This water comes from snowmelt in the east-central Arizona mountains.
In other words, a dense Phoenix built within the SRP footprint would be, within certain population limits, highly sustainable and not dependent on the CAP. Within certain limits and dependent on certain planning and investments, there is enough water for this city. Unfortunately, it's not the one being built now.
4. The Central Arizona Project which brings Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson via a 336-mile canal is another engineering marvel, built from 1973 to 1993. It allows the state to exercise its legal right to 2.8 million acre feet of water annually. In reality, the system can deliver about 1.5 million acre.
Unfortunately, the allocations in the Colorado River Compact of 1922 were based on years of abundant snowmelt in the Rockies rather than the long history of droughts going back 500 years. As a result...
5. The Colorado is oversubscribed ("too many straws in the river") — serving a region of 40 million people unimaginable in the empty West of 1922 — and facing drought, longer-term threats from climate change, and resistance from the Upper Basin to giving up more water. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at or near historic lows. I discuss this issue in greater depth in this column.
To be sure, some news accounts have overstated the danger of near-term reductions of water to Arizona cities. Agriculture would face cutbacks first. CAP officials don't expect cities to be affected for 10 to 15 years. But this is a heartbeat of time given the transitions the state needs to make. And it is a forecast based on a fickle river in a time of climate change.
6. Tucson and Pinal County face greater water vulnerability than Phoenix. Both are heavily dependent on groundwater and the CAP. Other parts of the state are encroaching on Salt River Project headwaters, especially in the over-developed Verde Valley. Yet other regions have little water, such as Mojave County and much of the High Country, but this hasn't stopped tract houses from being thrown up. In other words...
7. There is a near total and aggressive disconnect between land use and water supplies.
8. About 70 percent of Arizona's water was used for agriculture as of the 2000s. Another 22 percent went to municipalities. The former has likely fallen and the latter risen since. Still, ag uses the majority of the water. Yet this doesn't mean the agricultural water is there for the taking. First, many of the farmers' non-CAP water rights are grounded in law. Second, the nominal rights and even past usage may not translate into actual water now and in the future.
9. Both Phoenix and Tucson have made tremendous progress in water conservation.
10. Much of the groundwater in Phoenix, intended as emergency supplies, is contaminated from the "clean industries" that were attracted after World War II.
11. More water won't be coming from ambitious technological or public works schemes. A federal government that is thinking of mothballing an aircraft carrier — because taxes must always be cut and stay low — is not going to build a second CAP canal. And that would assume the Colorado water would be there. It won't, both because of the effect of climate change on Rockies runoff and resistance from the Upper Basin and California.
Similarly, desalination is a plan that has been floated from time to time. Build a plant for California and let Arizona use part of its Colorado River allocation. Build a plant in the Gulf of California. It has various iterations. Half of Israel's potable water comes from the sea. Federal austerity is again a barrier. But so are issues of huge energy consumption, damage to sea life and overall costs.
In addition, the Republican members of the congressional delegation are staunchly against infrastructure. They are the opposite of the statesmen who, for better and worse, ensured central Arizona's water in the twentieth century.
Some things we don't know:
1. How severely and quickly climate change will affect the Salt River Project. If the snowmelt decreases dramatically and stays that way, all bets are off. This year's critical January to May runoff was only 148,000 acre feet, the eighth driest in the 116 years that the SRP has been keeping records. It was also the fourth consecutive year of below-median inflows to the project's reservoirs (The 30-year median is 534,336 acre-feet).
2. Ditto for the Central Arizona Project.
3. How effectively and transparently the state is tracking and enforcing water regulations, especially the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. As the indispensable Shaun McKinnon explained in this 2009 Arizona Republic article, exurban developers and private water companies have undermined the act thanks to a variety of runarounds and a Legislature dominated by the Real Estate Industrial Complex. My sources question how aggressively the Department of Water Resources has done its job — thanks to political pushback from well-connected developers and lack of funding.
Put another way, the Groundwater Management Act has done much good. But we know it has been repeatedly subverted. We don't know how great the damage is and will be.
Speaking of which...the "100-year water supply" required of new developments has been the source of much mischief. Who knows if such a supply exists in some cases? Where it is real, the clock has been ticking, in some instances for decades. The mandate was primarily a requirement that would give the state time to wean these developments over to CAP water. Unfortunately, that supply is limited and most at risk.
4. How the Indian water rights settlement affects the future. The 2004 settlement with the Pimas and Maricopas had its origins in diversion of Gila River water and as a requirement for federal funding of the CAP. In total, the CAP has settled with nine tribes, with other settlements to come.
As a result, 47 percent of the CAP is designated for the tribes. Whether the they use it for farming and a return to a healthier lifestyle on the rez — or sell it to the Real Estate Industrial Complex remains to be seen.
5. Which trade-offs are real and constructive, which not?
Here's one example of the latter: X acres of agriculture can be converted into X acres of housing with big water savings. Even if this is true, it assumes that the agriculture in that location was sustainable in the first place given persistent drought and climate change. That the better response might be letting it return to desert.
A second concern, never examined with any diligence, is the long-term cost-benefit analysis of these trades. How much water is actually used/evaporated when golf courses, artificial lakes, swimming pools, asphalt, concrete and McMansions filled with water-sucking appliances and luxuries are added to the mix? When endless car dependency adds greenhouse gases that increase global warming?
Third, as the 10,000-mile-supply chain faces a host of challenges, it might be useful to save a portion of farmland and its water. Phoenix could once feed itself. Now it almost entirely depends on the outside.
Fourth, a cotton field could be left fallow in dry years. How do you do that with 5,000 houses outside Casa Grande or Coolidge?
Another questionable tradeoff is thoughtlessly decimating shade and plant life, and in some places grass, in favor of throwing down gravel on an industrial level. Phoenix officials are unforgivable on this front. Loss of the oasis already has drastically changed temperatures and weather (e.g., when a monsoon storm hits the concrete heat island), and the worst of climate change is yet to come. Why should the historic districts or Arcadia be reduced to dirt so the playerz can keep expanding on the fringes?
6. How much the increased scrutiny by the national press and scholars will affect decisions and behavior in Arizona.
The first reaction by the local-yokel opinion-makers is to rush to the barricades of denial. Everything's fine! With championship golf. Justify. Explain away. Lie. Attack the messenger. As I've written before, there is a cottage industry devoted to this (McMansion-sized, actually). Nor has serious examination of water been encouraged by political leaders of either party. It is Arizona's equivalent of the third rail.
There are some serious thinkers to be found. But speaking out without abundant, soothing caveats is highly dangerous. The state motto might as well be Upton Sinclair's "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
Everything is not fine. The complexity of the issue and the details still open to argument should not lull anyone into denial.
I recall the hysterical denunciations that met Andrew Ross' Bird on Fire, published by that slipshod bunch of nobodies, The Oxford University Press (Yes, I was extensively quoted in the book). It's unclear if the apologists even read it, much less with an open mind.
What really stuck in the collective craw was his subtitle: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City.
What about Dubai! Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Riyadh — Houston, for goodness sake? All are very hot places and will feel the whip of climate change. But they are also global centers of wealth and commerce. Their prosperity will buy them time. Baghdad, surely more unsustainable! Perhaps politically. But Phoenicians don't aspire to a Third World life, so the analogy doesn't work.
What makes the provocative subtitle worth, well, sustained reflection is that Phoenix and Arizona mostly exist to add population and give most residents greater or lesser degrees of a "resort lifestyle" in a completely artificial environment. There is no larger economy — oil, world-class ports, major financial center — sufficient to backstop the population.
Arizona is now the third most populous state in the entire West, behind California and Washington. The state as a whole uses about 7 million acre feet per year. This is far more than the CAP and SRP can deliver, so much of it is coming from precious groundwater.
What happens when the cost of population becomes too great? When the tipping point begins to hurt?
So far, Arizona has not begun making transitions that might take a decade or two to complete. Chief among them is moving away from a real-estate development/extraction economy.
Instead, the real-estate interests and "economic freedom" ideology unite to continue the one thing that should be stopped: sprawl development outside historic urban footprints. Against this continued destructive arrangement, hedges such as the estimated 3 million acre feet of CAP water stored in aquifers are not enough to avoid eventual disaster.
Phoenix is not going to run out of water tomorrow. Arizona has more than a few years of water, even in the most vulnerable places. This could buy time for intelligent responses to reality. Instead, it is empowering a continued toxic status quo.
So far. It's not too late.