"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell" — Edward Abbey
I was reading an Arizona Republic story about the state seeking ways to "prop up" Lake Mead to "forestall painful and chaotic shortages for at least a few years." The number that sat me back was that Arizona draws 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River.
For an old-timer like me this is an astounding statistic. In 1960, Arizona took very little water from the river. Greater Phoenix, which constituted 50 percent of the state's population, received all its water from the dams and reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers. The rest of the state was heavily dependent on ground water, the pumping of which was already a longstanding problem, with a few other renewable river sources. But the entire state held 1.3 million people — less than the population of today's city of Phoenix.
What nobody wants to discuss is when does Arizona hit population overshoot? With more than 6.8 million people, a population that places it in the ranks of such states as Massachusetts and Washington, one could argue it already has. This is particularly true considering the combination of an over-subscribed Colorado and the growing stress of climate change.
It's virtually a forbidden topic. Even after the housing collapse, Arizona's economy remains a one-trick pony dependent on adding more people, building more sprawl, creating a Sun Corridor from Benson to Flagstaff. The local-yokel boosters mounted up to attack Andrew Ross' superbly researched and well argued book, Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City, precisely because he crossed the line. He asked the existential questions about the vast Ponzi scheme. I did the same as a Republic columnist, despite being warned from the most powerful levels: Don't write about water. I did and I was out.
Arizona had a pretty good deal for much of the 20th century. It had a small population. Towns were compact. Federal reclamation created an American Eden in the Salt River Valley. Federal policies and investment in Cold War industries, home loans, cheap power for air conditioning, and highways and airports goosed growth after World War II. So did generations of retirees who were allowed a comfortable retirement in the sun thanks to FDR's Social Security and the post-war prosperity created by the liberal consensus of a mixed economy and strong unions. Phoenix, especially, had abundant land and water.
Things went off the rails starting in the late 1980s. Real estate became the dominant driver of the economy. The population grew 40 percent in the 1990s to top 5 million at the turn of the century. And it broke out of the traditional confines — exurban tract-house pods in the Verde Valley, outside Prescott, Payson, and Flagstaff, Pima County's notorious wildcat subdivisions, the massive conversion of farmland to sprawl in metro Phoenix spilling into Pinal County, and utterly unsustainable plays in Mojave County, outside Benson, and beyond the White Tanks. Don't forget the dodgy land swaps that turned public land along the Mogollon Rim into subdivisions ("cabins") erected in vulnerable tinder-box forests.
A modest initiative to institute growth boundaries seemed on its way to winning in 2000 — this was after the Republic ran its courageous series on development eating an acre of desert every hour. This scared the hell out of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. It mobilized a desperate campaign than ran from the "scholarly" — developer-economist Elliott Pollack warning that the measure would cause a recession — to the thuggish. The proposition was defeated and the sprawl boyz platted every inch of private land for development, to ensure sensible land use could never happen.
This is a short history — much more could be written about each item here. So, too, more could be done about the state's water sustainability. As I've written before, water is very complex in Arizona. We're not "running out" — it's not that simple. But neither can we continue the detached single-family house sprawl model without limits. The 1980 groundwater act was necessary for achieving the Central Arizona Project (in retrospect, the CAP was a mistake). But how well is it really policed? The 100-year water supply required of new subdivisions sounds good — until one digs into its loopholes and arcana. How many projects have been permitted under political pressure? And what's the end-game of the 100-year supply, even if it's real, even if groundwater recharge is making up for continued groundwater pumping (hint: it's not).
The mighty acts of the early 20th century ensured that average Arizonans can turn on the tap and never even think about where the water comes from, much less worry, much less reflect on the future. It's an amazing achievement. So is the human-made artificial environment that makes one of the most hostile environments so effortlessly habitable. Or so it seems. All this cloaks the serious questions that should be asked and the policy one-eighties that should be made.
Sure, they can buy time. Kill off the Phoenix oasis. Eliminate agriculture. Continue spreading misinformation and intimidating serious investigations into the true conditions and alternatives. But it is only kicking the can down the hot pavement. The rates of return keep diminishing. Massachusetts' population grew 3.1 percent from 2000 to 2010. Big deal. It enjoys one of the most vibrant economies on the planet and ensures much higher well-being for its citizens. That's the model Arizona should be embracing now, not continuing the old extraction economy of the Real Estate Industrial Complex.
And that has about zero chance of happening. Arizona is like the idiots that climb Camelback on a hot day and demand a rescue when heat exhaustion and heat stroke fells them. Some day that rescue won't come.
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