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July, 2011, Page 28
Illustration by Gary Taxali
Arizona may be in its longest drought on record, but are we really running out of water and doomed to endure the next Dust Bowl?
By July, the Verde River in central Arizona reaches its low point for the year. Despite enjoying a wet winter, a dry spring has kick-started the river’s annual summer slim down, receding its shoreline by about 15 to 20 feet in some places. Some of its tributaries, such as West Clear Creek near Jerome, have been siphoned of all water, exposing long stalks of weedy grass that once danced under the river’s current. They’re stamped firmly to the ground now – thirsty, crisp and blonde from the sun – bent in the same direction the water once flowed.
The Verde River nurtures nearby cottonwood trees, whose feathery white tufts flutter through the air, prickly foxtails that stick stubbornly to your socks, and a range of wildlife from bobcats to beavers. But it’s also partly responsible for filling your water bottle each day – that is, if you get your water through Salt River Project (SRP), which takes and treats water from the Salt and Verde watersheds so you can shower, clean the dishes, keep your lawn lush, fill Fido’s water bowl, etc.
And although the river is a rich riparian area with deep watering holes and healthy flows in most areas, its shrinking summer shoreline supports what most people envision when they think of Arizona’s water supply in the future. (Admit it, in your version of Arizona, circa 2050, Kevin Costner isn’t exactly doggy paddling by your houseboat.)
We expect a waterless world, and why shouldn’t we? Both locally and nationally, scientists and media are stirring fears of dusty canals, empty faucets and (eek!) water rations in Arizona that will leave our lawns brown and our throats parched indefinitely. Recent doom-and-gloom headlines warn that, thanks to climate change, accelerated growth and dwindling Colorado River supplies, the “Southwest Could Become Dust Bowl” (The Arizona Republic, 2007), and lament that, “In Phoenix, Even Cactuses Wilt in Clutches of Record Drought” (The New York Times, 2006).
“There is no point, zero, in which you go to your tap, turn it on and water doesn’t come out. The whole system is set up to prevent that very thing.”
— Grady Gammage Jr.,senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy
Saguaro skeletons crumbling into massive, swirling dust dunes? No running water? No, thank you.
Only problem, experts say, is that this scenario just isn’t likely – not even close. The Valley is in an official drought – the longest one on record, in fact, starting around 1996. But thanks to a hundred years of thoughtful water management, it seems our arid state is perfectly primed to survive its current drought and any future droughts that inevitably will strike.
And while certain challenges already are percolating – such as limited groundwater supplies, a diminishing reserve of Colorado River water and unpredictable climate changes – water experts, local scientists and even environmentalists seem to agree: When it comes to preventing a dusty, disastrous future, Arizona is overflowing with good ideas.
In fact, says Grady Gammage Jr., senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy and an attorney specializing in water policy, when it comes to managing our H2O, “We may be the best of all the states in the country. We’re certainly better off than any arid region state.”
So, why the flood of negative information? And what will Arizona look like in the next 50 years if not a desiccated sand land?
First, it’s important to understand where our water comes from.
Arid-zona harbors more water than you might think, with 28 major rivers and streams snaking their way throughout the state. Today, Arizona sources about 54 percent of its H20 from this surface water, including the aforementioned Verde River, but most notably from the Colorado River, which the Central Arizona Project (CAP) takes, treats and delivers.
CAP operates a 336-mile canal that stretches from Lake Havasu City to Tucson and delivers an average of 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually to more than 4 million people in Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, as well as to 300,000 acres of farmland in central Arizona and about a dozen American Indian tribes. (An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons of water – roughly half the amount in an Olympic-size swimming pool – and can serve a family of five for one year, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources.)
Arizona’s other major source of water (about 43 percent) is aquifers, or naturally occurring reservoirs, that have been storing water underground since crocodile-like Phytosaurs skulked around the region 245 million years ago. We pump this water out of the ground for agricultural use and to support smaller cities and towns in Arizona; streams and snowmelt from higher elevations then naturally replenish the aquifers. Historically, we’ve been pumping more water from the ground than is going back into it, however, and this has created one of Arizona’s major water dilemmas. But more on that later.
The last few drops of Arizona’s water supply (about 3 percent) comes from effluent, or reclaimed, water. This treated wastewater is used to irrigate agriculture, golf courses, parks and cemeteries, among other public greenery in the Valley, and is also used to help create energy at the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant west of Phoenix.
So, if we’re swimming in water resources, why the dreary drought statistics?
Well, despite our water wealth, drought is and always will be part of our history. Tree ring data show that droughts of 20 to 30 years have not been uncommon in Arizona in the past 1,000 years. Drought (plus growth) may have even forced out the Hohokam Indians, whose intricate irrigation canals in the 1500s ultimately inspired the Valley’s modern canal system.
Drought continued to stifle development in the late 1800s, when ex-Confederate cavalryman Jack Swilling set up shop with his Swilling Irrigation and Canal Co. He and his men built hundreds of miles of canals on top of the Hohokams’ abandoned structures, bringing water to a burgeoning agricultural community. But drought soon halted everything, compelling most settlers to seek more hospitable living conditions. Their hard work, however, inspired the remaining settlers, with help from the federal government, to ultimately construct SRP’s first water storage facility, Roosevelt Dam, from 1903 to 1911. The $10.3 million marvel stood 280 feet high, stretched 723 feet long and contained enough water to serve the growing Phoenix area for five years. Drought be damned – or dammed in this case.
Nonetheless, this is a desert, and drought happens.
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