In a meeting I attended last year with a group of editors and reporters at the Arizona Republic, one writer asked an incisive question: "How do we get people to take water issues seriously?" In neighboring New Mexico, drought had dried up rivers and forced water rationing. But Arizona itself seemed flush. The state had so much water it was pouring millions of gallons into the ground, to be pumped out and used on a later, drier day.
"Good luck," was about all the response I could muster. I’d flown into Phoenix earlier that afternoon, and I’d seen the sapphire circle of a swimming pool in every other backyard, and the emerald fairways of innumerable golf courses. Arizona had done a brilliant job of creating the illusion of watery bounty, and convincing residents that they lived in a place of scarcity would be no easy task.
As Associate Editor Matt Jenkins discovered while writing the cover story for this issue, Arizona’s looming water problems are not the stuff of disaster movies. In this engineered age, drought is not a tsunami that will crush civilization overnight. Instead, it’s a slow-motion landslide, gradually toppling the best-laid plans of the visionaries who built the Southwest as we know it.
Those visionaries include Morris Udall, who spent much of his 30-year congressional career fighting for the Central Arizona Project, which pulls water from the Colorado River 300-plus miles across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson. They also include former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who helped win federal funding for the CAP by hashing out rules meant to save Arizona’s groundwater for dry times.
The current drought is threatening to dry up the CAP just as the state is beginning to pay off its share of the $4 billion construction tab. The rules meant to safeguard groundwater, meanwhile, have been rendered impotent by a loophole that allows developers to continue drilling wells. If the current drought continues, the situation could easily spiral out of control, as water supplies dwindle and water bills soar.
For the time being, lacking sky-high water bills — and the arrival of howling sandstorms — it will be difficult to convince Arizonans to behave like residents of a desert. (This winter’s deluge certainly isn’t helping the sense of urgency, though one good winter will not break a drought like the one we’re in.) There are some in Arizona who realize how precarious the situation is becoming, however, and they are beginning to lay new plans for dealing with water shortage. At the same time, the Interior Department, to its immense credit, is forcing Arizona and the other six states on the Colorado to hammer out an agreement by April to share the pain if the drought continues.
It’s the first time in a long time that these states have thought of themselves as fellow residents of the watershed, equally tied to the fate of the river. It’s also the first time in a while that we’ve been so up-front about one of the fundamental facts of the region: Despite our best-laid plans, the West has hard limits, and we need to learn to live within those limits.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.