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.
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
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.