Turning water inside-out

by Matt Jenkins

Our feature story this issue tells the tale of two cities — a city and a fort, actually — along the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona. As veteran growth reporter Tony Davis shows, the two places have had markedly differing success in dealing with a shared water problem.

On one hand, there’s Fort Huachuca. When a federal judge dinged the Army for its groundwater pumping, which he said could jeopardize two endangered species in the San Pedro River, Army discipline kicked in: The fort severely restricted outside watering, installed water-efficient clothes washers, low-flow toilets and waterless urinals, and — drum roll, please — cut water use by more than 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the neighboring city of Sierra Vista proved to be the nightmare that, for most of the West, is reality. There, the effort to trim water use has run up against wildcat development, a city government that grants rezonings like they’re going out of style, and an influx of newcomers who can drill wells and pump to their hearts’ content.

The difference? Politics, and the fact that water-reformers in Sierra Vista have to contend with the morass of conflicting and not-so-enlightened self-interest that typically goes by the handle of "democratic society."

Sierra Vista is hardly a world unto itself. The West’s pockets of civilization originally took root around the region’s rivers — partly because they provided the water people need, but also because they were beautiful places. Since then, the cities and economies have mostly overshadowed the rivers along whose banks they bloomed, and we’ve gotten in the habit of acting like these waterways don’t exist. And once we’ve drained them, the usual reaction is to cast about elsewhere for more water that we can pipe in.

That’s an idea that Sierra Vista is kicking around now — and one that would give it a place in the famous line of Western water-redistribution schemes. Once L.A. drained the Los Angeles River, it led the way by reaching in three different directions for water: to the east side of the Sierra, then to the Colorado River, and then to the Central Valley. Denver, on the South Platte, pipes in water from the Colorado River on the other side of the Continental Divide. Phoenix, on the Salt and Verde Rivers, pulls water across 160 miles of blistering desert from the Colorado. And Albuquerque, on the Rio Grande — the Rio Grande! — now also reaches across the Continental Divide for water from the San Juan River.

If we’re so adept at rearranging reality, why can’t we finally ditch our trademark Western infatuation with bringing rivers to us, and start remembering the rivers that brought us here?

© High Country News