So Doug Ducey and Fred DuVal have laid out their plans for addressing a water shortage in Arizona. DuVal, naturally, comes off as the sanest, including asking the state Department of Water Resources "to develop a detailed analysis of the Groundwater Management Act and provide specific recommendations for improving the law."
That's good. I don't trust ADWR or have confidence that the law is being adequately enforced or monitored.
DuVal is less convincing when he told the Arizona Republic that the state needs to "go big" on new water projects, including desalination. As regular readers know, the feds aren't going to invest in more waterworks. California and the Upper Basin states would also resist them with all their might (see here and here).
Ducey comes off full kook, including his insinuation that trees are to blame for drought. The last thing Phoenix needs to do is further degrade its historic oasis. Central Phoenix, especially, needs more trees to offset the heat island and climate change.
But nobody dared wake the elephant. You know, the one in the room
The reality is that no amount of conservation can save Arizona, or at least make it a place worth living in. "Innovations," even primed with a $100,000 bounty, can only nibble around the margins.
The reality is that Arizona can't keep adding population at the rate seen in recent decades. It especially can't do so in single-family sprawl, an alarming amount happening or planned for distant exurbs with highly questionable water supplies.
Indeed, both metro and state are probably past their carrying capacity.
There, I said it.
And it says much about the future that no viable candidate for office dares utter these realities.
Don't come selling me desalination, gravel or turning-pee-into-drinking-water until you grasp this basic, unalterable truth.
Phoenix as the nation's sixth most populous city and thirteenth most populous metropolitan area is a consequence of luck and mighty acts. The luck was being situated in the best watered part of the world's wettest desert. Also, the moment in history with the richest nation on earth, the greatest middle class, air conditioning and cheap gasoline. The acts were the ambitious water projects from the Newlands Act that funded Theodore Roosevelt Dam all the way to the Central Arizona Project.
In the process, Arizona pulled a bait-and-switch. Both the Newlands Act and the fight for the CAP were sold as reclaiming one of the world's great alluvial valleys for agriculture. In the case of the former, it would provide a Jeffersonian paradise of yeoman farmers with their 160 acres. The latter was marketed as essential to extending and sustaining it.
In the CAP Supreme Court case and in Congress, California argued that Arizona would simply use the water to turn Phoenix into a big, unsustainable city. Guess what.
The problem now is that Arizona doesn't have a Plan B. With a few exceptions that would be impressive assets in a smaller place, the state economy is almost entirely predicated on adding more people in single-family sprawl.
This was the growth machine that seemed to work by magical levitation for so many years. "Work" was a disingenuous term, of course, because the state fell further and further behind in the needed investments to accommodate such a huge population. Growth did not pay for itself.
"They had learned nothing and they had forgotten nothing." That's what Talleyrand said of the House of Bourbon, but it's equally applicable to the business and political interests that have run Arizona in recent decades. The alliance and habits that I call the Real Estate Industrial Complex.
By the way, this mono-society is a relatively new phenomenon. While Phoenix always wanted to grow, its leaders worked hard to build a diversified economy to support the population. But leaders died off and real headquarters were lost. The lessons of the 1990 crash were forgotten in a new growth spurt. By the time of the Great Recession, one out of three jobs were connected to real estate and construction.
Phoenix fell into its worst depression since the 1890s and it still hasn't recovered (as this latest news shows). Far from it. As I wrote years ago, the old growth machine — with championship golf! — isn't coming back. This turning point could not have arrived at a worse time in an essentially leaderless state, a crackpotville that would send Barry Goldwater into a rage (and did, in its infancy, when he was still alive).
Yet even now the Real Estate Industrial Complex, abetted by the Kookocracy it keeps in power, forbids any discussion of reality, much less a serious Plan B.
Plan B is not "sustainability" gimmicks that allow the land and housing hustles to continue as they always have, with a patina of greenwash.
Instead, it would require things the local-yokel titans will not allow: land-use restrictions; higher taxes to dissuade newcomers and fund long-ignored infrastructure (including water investments for the oasis); incentives to relocate back to the safety of the Salt River Project footprint; a real economic-development strategy that includes big investments in universities and K-12 education, and serious research about sustainability.
That's the short list, but it would create a competitive, livable place much better prepared for a rough future. "Arizona is running out of water!" I heard it at a cocktail party last night in Seattle. Of course our water situation is much more complicated. Arizona doesn't have to "run out of water." But it would have to implement something like the Plan B I discuss.
Phoenix's sustainable population: Maybe 2 million in high-quality density, probably much less. But operating in a society where growth means higher incomes, better education, 21st century transportation options, growing research and leading-edge industry and increasing quality of life for all.
Reality will carry out Plan C whether the boosters and growthgasm crowd likes it or not. That means more than the current doldrums. It means the accumulation of rising temperatures, extended summers, drought, wildfires, environmental destruction, strange weather and climate change.
The time will come when it is too costly to maintain the artificial environment for 6.5 million people, and many won't choose to stay or move here. The time will come, when the 10,000-mile food chain breaks down, when a few of us will long for the Salt River Valley that could grow anything and feed itself.
Eventually, the desert will win. The desert always wins. Ask the Hohokam.
The tragedy is that it will be a profaned desert, one whose unique beauty risks being obliterated by human-caused climate change. But no future civilization will visit the ruins of the Suprise Super Wal-Mart.
It breaks my heart and it is so unnecessary — oh, right, I'm the one who "hates Arizona."