Phoenix Falling?

Will Phoenix continue to boom … or bust entirely? The answer may lie in the ancient Hohokam city buried beneath.

  • Phoenix now and then

  • A Hohokam dwelling from Neolithic times, now preserved in the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument outside Phoenix

  • Phoenix today

  • A map shows how modern canals follow the contours of ancient ones

  • Archaeologist Emil Haury stands in an excavated Hohokam canal at the Snaketown site near Phoenix, circa 1964

  • An archaeologist unearths the remains of an ancient Hohokam structure that was discovered when the old Phoenix Civic Plaza was demolished

  • Charlie Ester, a hydrologist with the Salt River Project, on one of the canals that carries Phoenix’s lifeblood

  • Cory Breternitz, president of Soil Systems Inc., on a dig near Phoenix

  • Archaeologist Tom Wright looks at Hohokam drawings on rocks above what’s now Tempe, Arizona


The helicopter came in like revelation itself, a gash of white light hitting the desert, and a terrible bellow of rotors. Heart pounding, waking straight out of sleep, I took a second to get my bearings. I was in my sleeping bag under a scrawny palo verde tree, not enough cover to hide me from a Phoenix police helicopter scouring the dry mountainside for criminals and indigents. I held tight and waited for the light to find me. Before it did, the helicopter suddenly withdrew, like a claw yanked back into the sky. I sat up and watched it veer across the incandescent grid of the city, a brilliant tapestry of light rolled out to every horizon.

I was not in the wilderness, not even on its edge. I was in the middle of Phoenix, camped illegally on Lookout Mountain, part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, hemmed on all sides by streaming freeways and traffic lights. I watched the helicopter as long as I could, until it was swallowed by the city.

The dark mountains of Phoenix have always attracted me. At night, they seem like a sanctuary. Suspended over the baritone rumble of the city, I found better sleep here, even with the helicopters, than in a motel on scratchy sheets. Beyond comfort, though, Lookout Mountain gave me a vantage on the city, a place where I could see an entire lay of urban ancestry.

In high school, I used to climb these mountains, my Friday nights spent bedazzled by the lights below. That was more than 20 years ago, and since then the population of greater Phoenix has more than doubled to nearly 4 million residents, its lights now saturating the sky, blotting out all but the brightest stars. The sight used to be awe-inspiring, and now it is almost terrifying.

Growing faster than any other population center in the nation, Phoenix is balanced on an environmental tightrope. Thirty new skyscrapers are proposed for downtown alone, while metastatic sprawl carves up surrounding desert. At the moment, there is a robust water supply — for greater Phoenix alone — but the city’s water-wealth has created a growing inequity in the state. Even while Phoenix has become Arizona’s solitary Green Zone, depending almost entirely on water imported from mountain reservoirs and the Colorado River, it is having its own problems, whole pieces of land subsiding into falling water tables. Phoenix seems either on the verge of unparalleled success or catastrophic failure. At this point, it might be hard to tell the difference between the two.

This is not the first time unchecked growth has filled the Valley of the Sun. If you lift the rug of Phoenix, buried directly below you will find the remains of an ancient city, a Neolithic version of Phoenix. The first communities appeared in the low basin of the Salt River 3,000 years ago, as shown by remains recently discovered under the new Phoenix Convention Center. From there, prehistoric settlements took an escalating course of empire, filling the basin to overflowing. They sprawled all the way south to Tucson, while satellite communities appeared even north of Flagstaff. They grew until they were no longer able to sustain themselves. Then, their civilization fell.

They are known as the Hohokam, a Pima word meaning “all used up.” The doubled first syllable accentuates the sentiment, telling of a people that completely burned itself out. When Anglo settlers arrived shortly after the American Civil War, they found a desert studded with grand adobe ruins, vestiges of an inexplicable culture. They called their new settlement Phoenix, imagining themselves rising from the ashes of a lost city.

Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I looked across Phoenix and it seemed resplendent, unassailable. My eye moved along seamless corridors of light where the once lonely towns of Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Goodyear converged, absorbed into a greater municipality. Curiously, these lights define the same settlement patterns archaeologists have found among Hohokam communities. The two cities overlap as if made for each other.

The original Anglo settlers began digging canals in the mid-1800s, and wherever they dug they unearthed the remains of Hohokam canals below. For the next 150 years, engineers planned new canals throughout this growing city, and nearly each one follows an original Hohokam grid, as if pouring water back into an ancient hydraulic empire, bringing a ghost to life. New and old waterways follow the same gradients, the same courses. The Hohokam built nearly a thousand miles of canals and laterals, quenching fields of cotton, corn, pumpkins, amaranth and beans. They filled basins for domestic water at innumerable villages and town sites. Modern Phoenix followed suit, becoming a cotton-growing mecca, a city of water in the heart of the desert. Communities sprang up in the same places that Hohokam settlements once stood. Even the saline content of modern Phoenix’s water matches the chemical signature of Hohokam water just before the fall. The two cities lie along a similar environmental trajectory, and they may face a similar end.

When archaeologists study the Hohokam, they see a civilization that finally collapsed under the weight of drought, overpopulation, and ensuing social disarray. When they look at Phoenix, they see potential for the same.

Tom Wright, a local contract archaeologist, told me, “The Hohokam kept extending their canal systems farther and farther from the river. You tend to find their later sites under present-day Chandler or out in Goodyear. They kept increasing from the valley outward. The irrigation canals were the system that fed growth. Water was the lifeblood that flowed through these communities.

“Now the lifeblood is traffic. The city grows along patterns of freeways. Water doesn’t seem to count any more. We take it for granted. But whether people know it or not, like the Hohokam, we are an irrigation society living on imported water, and we’re outstripping our resources. Sound familiar?”

Wright is not a melancholy doomsayer. Like many of his colleagues in the city, he is merely a connoisseur of the way civilizations rise and fall. He knows the signs to watch for.

Apr 13, 2007 06:07 PM

Fascinating... It seems that every time I think I've got a handle on the number of incredible challenges facing our society... a couple of new ones pop up. It is difficult to imagine a society as powerful as our own simply collapsing. But, I guess the Greeks, Romans, Spanish, French, British, Soviets didn't see their empires collapsing either.

Apr 16, 2007 11:00 AM

It's easy to look at cities as individual entities, as they surely were thousands of years ago. That approach cannot work when looking at the modern American cities of the southwest, especially in the context of global warming. Modern regional plumbing projects mean that Phoenix will only collapse when desert outlier cities, stressed by their own water problems, tire of sacrifices made in support of the huge, isolated water sinks of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, to name a few. These places can claim population dependent clout, for now, but it will count for nothing if it means draining water from food-producing regions to the (way) north.

Coming climate change will require massive plumbing infrastructure on a scale never before seen in this country if desert cities are to survive. Growing red-state antipathy towards anything resembling "public works", especially with resources stressed as they will be, guarantees that these places will be reclaimed by the desert of the future.


Apr 16, 2007 10:41 PM

Phoenix, indeed most of the West's population is growing at a rate that it will outstrip this arid region's ability to supply water to sustain itself.  Dams may have forestalled the inevitiable, but they can't help much in the face of a 20 to 30 year drought.  If that's what we're in, then we're going to be in trouble. 

Worse yet, the "new" urban areas of the West are the most automobile-dependent cities in the world.  What will probably plunge them into depression will be exploding fuel prices, even before water shortages "get" them.

In Phoenix's case (as with Las Vegas), development didn't explode until cheap electricity and the advent of mechanical air conditioning made them hospitable in the summer.  When cheap electricity is gone, and people can't run those air conditioners, who is going to want to live there?  Albuquerque and Phoenix had about the same population in 1940--around 50,000 or so each.  THAT might be their future in a water-short and fuel-short world.

Apr 17, 2007 12:06 PM

I have lived in the Phoenix area (near Buckeye) since 1975, and have sorrowed for every acre of desert lost in that time.  The area was growing much too fast even then, and now, if you haven't driven a particular road for a couple of weeks, you can't recognize anything when you DO drive it.

I agree with the previous comment that expensive electricity and fuel are probably the only hope that we of the real desert have for eventually reversing the growth.  But will there be anything left worth keeping?

AJ Wischmeyer 

Apr 18, 2007 11:46 AM

Recall that Phoenix is adding more lanes to their freeway system--a total of 12 lanes.  This is a situation that is not close to equilibrium and will ultimately fail.

Apr 18, 2007 04:03 PM

Overpopulation.  That is the key.  There are just too many people everywhere.  All of the West will have water problems sooner or later.  Water is THE issue, even more than global warming.  John Wesley Powell was right!


Apr 19, 2007 01:49 AM

I lived in Phoenix for nearly 22 years, and remember when winters were chilly and the monsoons were predictable.  I miss my friends, but I sure don't miss the town.  Arizona -- and Phoenix -- should have lead the way on sustainability, solar p.v. and solar thermal; but instead, Arizona is a lagging indicator.  What a shame.  I remember the beauty of the desert, and I am afraid for what it will be in 10 or 20 years. 

May 16, 2007 01:14 PM

The comments here are so right on.  There isn't much else to say other than why aren't we harnessing the water melting from the ice instead of allowing it to elevate sea levels?  It seems to me and always has that they should have built a water pipeline at the same time they built the oil one.  We would have saved a ton of money and could already have a way in place to alleviate some of the global warming devastation while providing water where needed.  Just a thought.

 jb slc,ut

Jul 05, 2007 07:06 PM


Doesn’t it bother you that our leaders are unable to recognize and support projects that advance principles of smart growth and sustainable development?  I take issue with our regulatory system which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain entitlements for higher density development and am outraged at our civic leaders for failing to recognize and encourage smart growth within our city’s core areas. 


Inasmuch as water and traffic have become conversational issues in the community you would think science and logic would support the city’s decision making process when considering important infill development projects within our city’s core areas.  Higher Density Infill is the number one solution for efficient water use and conservation of vital all vital resources --- but you would never know that if you listen to Mayor Gordon.


The Mayor believes the opposite to be true and he has repeatedly voted against projects that advance principles of smart growth --- ignoring the larger interests of the greater community and profound benefits that belie quality infill.


Although our natural and financial resources are limited, politicos continue promote sprawl by failing to support smart growth and fighting projects that should be hailed as examples to follow.


Refusing to allow higher density to occur in our city’s core areas is absurd.  We can definitely improve our community’s sustainability by supporting projects that demonstrably advance principles of smart growth such as those proposed near 24th and Camelback, and at the intersection of 44th and Camelback.


Higher Density is Vital…

Jan 07, 2008 06:53 PM

An excellent article.  I would like to see more like it.  Maby about albuquerque, Salt LakeCity or Grand Junction CO in oil shale country.

Jan 09, 2008 11:07 AM

great article! i'm a planner and i agree with the previous commentor (with the strangely large font) who said that higher-density growth is vital for sustainability. of course, any growth at all requires resources, but if we build more densely, get more people walking etc., they will be using less energy overall... one can hope... :-/ but it would require massive regulatory change. we all need to fight for it!!! 

Jan 18, 2008 11:32 AM

    This article is an interesting discussion of the parallels between Phoenix and the extinct Hohokam civilization upon whose ruins the modern city is built and of the environmental sustainability and water supply of both.  
     However, there are a number of paragraphs dealing with changing demography and cultural diversity which read like the propaganda of white supremist, anti-immigrant groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Minuteman Project whose press releases and news articles use the vocabulary of demographers and social scientists to distort and inflame the immigration issue. To these kinds of social anthropologist, changing demographics and culture change always means the degradation of the environment, technological devolution, the ruin of civilization, the end of white America.
     In discussing the extinct Hohokam culture, the author introduces "a gritty and bearded archaeologist smoking a cigarette out of the corner of his mouth", who predicts the "fall" of Phoenix because of, among other things, "environmental degradation" and an "infrastructure booming out of control, demanding more and more water..."  In discussing the city of Phoenix, the second great civilization to flourish in the Valley of the Sun, the author says "migrants are pouring into the city...from the Midwest, Canada and Central America".
    The word "migrant" must be understood as "immigrant" and in the hostile context provided by the anti-immigrant movement, the term "immigrant" means "unwanted burden on the economy" and "a threat to traditional American values". Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado used this term to tag the people he claims have changed Miami into a 3rd world nation.
      The term "pouring", above, is similar to words like "flood", "deluge" or "tidal wave" which are words commonly used in anti-immigrant literature to express a ruinous excess; to much; too many.The immigrant or outsider group most discussed by anti-immigrants, the one most targeted and the one counted by them as the largest minority group in the United States is the Hispanic. That the author says the immigrants are coming to the Phoenix area from diverse areas, Canada, the Great Plains, Central America, doesn't really matter, because the anti-immigrant movement supply the deeper meanings for these buzzwords: "immigrant" means "too many" and "too many" means "Hispanic". 
     The author continues his article in a demographic channel, "[Phoenix is]...nearly 80 percent English-speaking white..." but "pockets of ethnicity are growing rapidly. There are places in the city nearly identical to urban Mexico, with colorful tiendas lining the blocks, Latin polkas and raggaeton booming from radios.
     When he talks about "80% English-speaking white" the author must mean both English-speaking non-Hispanic white and English-speaking Hispanic white since according  to William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, "the non-Hispanic white population in Phoenix [has] dropped below 50%..."   
     The confusing distinction made  between "white Hispanic' and "non-white Hispanic" is favored by anti-immigrants because they believe the term "Hispanic" properly names a single, homogeneous, non-white ethnicity regardless of whether some individual Hispanics believe themselves to be white and regardless of the wide diversity of nationalities, languages, religions and cultures covered by the term.  
     The term "Hispanic" with its "non-white" and "white" qualifiers is mandated for use by federal demographers and statisticians by a long-standing OMB directive. The terms were first used in the 1970 census when white supremists and anti-immigrants in Congress ordered the Census bureau to use them in this way.   
     When the author places '...colorful tiendas, Latin Polkas and booming radios nearly identical to urban Mexico" in a context being informed by the anti-immigrant movement, and his own comparisons with the Hohokam culture, his casual and distasteful ethnic stereotyping becomes ominous of cultural decline and a coming disaster for U.S. civilization.
     Mr. Child says that research indicates at least 7 languages in Hohokam culture and then quotes Arizona State linguist Betsy Brandt:  “We have a quarter of a million recent immigrants who speak Spanish..."  White supremacy dabbles in linguistics as well as social science. It teaches that language is one marker of a people's inbred intellectual merit and that the common use of a single superior language is a requirement for the advance of civilization. White supremacy favors English. 
     In the language of white supremacy, the adjective "recent" in Ms. Brandt's statement is conventionally used to give more pejorative force to the negative term "immigrant" and should be understood as "illegal" or at a minimum "burdensome and unwanted newcomer".  
     I don't know exactly what the linguist means when she says, "about 50 percent of
urban Indians speak Navajo".
When I taught school in the small reservation town of Crownpoint, New Mexico, around 20% to 30% percent of the 6th grade children spoke Navajo or were somewhat conversant in it. Of those, all were bilingual in English and Navajo. A few were trilingual in English, Navajo and Spanish and it is likely that some were familiar with one or more Indian languages beside Navajo.
     There are many Indian languages in the Southwest and although Navajo is the largest tribal group, there is no logical reason to believe that half of urban Indians speak the language or even that so many people of  Navajo descent would be found in any given urban "pocket of [Indian] ethnicity". The anti-immigrants wouldn't have any trouble at all with assessing the prevalence of Navajo language in the urban Southwest, though. "50% Navajo? That's too much.  Spanish surnames? Too many. A clear threat." 
     Ms. Brandt adds: “We now have a lot of workers from India and Pakistan, and just recently a major influx of refugees from Africa, from Kenya, Somalia, from central African countries, North African countries.”   "Workers", in this particular context, is another term that exchanges with "immigrant" or "outsider"  and naming nations like India, Pakistan Kenya and Somalia is not descriptively different from naming Middle or Central American nations because to white supremists all these these kinds of national and regional names consign everyone they label to the same level of racial and cultural merit and so instead of drawing attention toward diversity, the mention of the immigrant contributions of nations in Africa and Asia  add weight and substance to anti-immigrant demographic studies of Hispanics, Mexicans, Guatemalans...people like that. 
      Ms. Brandt says that "In the suburb of Tempe alone, 92 different languages are spoken as primary home languages..." To the anti-immigration movement "diversity" means "illegal resistance to assimilation". John Tanton, the executive head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, is also head of U.S. English and is the long-time leader of the English Only movement.
     All this reminded me of how, back in the early part of the 20Th century when Congress was discussing racial quotas on immigration, one Congressman described Mexicans as a "blend of low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and negro slave" and stated that U.S. law must guard against the "mongrelization" of the country. In a word like "mongrelization", it's easy to see what has inspired the anti-immigration movement and its lawmakers, whether we are talking about the humanly degrading concept of the adulteration of Anglo culture or the hybridization of the Anglo race.    
     But in this article, it was hard for me to see what immigration  has to do with environmental degradation, sustainable cultural infrastructure and water supply in the two civilizations of the Salt River Valley.  Then I remembered how the many faceted John  Tanton, a Sierra Club director, tried to influence the voting members into adding an anti-immigrant plank into the Sierra Club environmental platform by pointing to the environmental benefits of a reduction in the excess population which so effected me as I read the words Mr. Child's used to punctuate his comments on demographic change saying, "All of this has an uncanny resemblance to the Hohokam situation: incoming migrants from distant ethnicities, urban sprawl, pressure on the...water supply...", that I thought I saw Mr. Tanton himself standing at the highest corner of the Navajo Tall House, Kin Ya'a, the Watchtower of the 4 quarters of the earth, lamenting in a loud voice the environmental ruin of the Denetah and all the Four Corners as he waives the 1855 California Greaser Act which made "the issue of Indian and Spanish blood" a public nuisance, the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act which made "wetbacks" illegal and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act which turned our heretofore environmentally insensitive Social Security Administration into a criminal database by which retributive justice can at last catch up to these High Sierra trail-cutting scoundrels who come from heaven only knows where to mongrelize the water supply and anything else you'd care to imagine. O, it was an uncanny. 
     The archaeologist gets the last word in this segment when he says “...the biggest civilization here so far [is the Anglo and it is] the most globally connected,”  After another drag off his cigarette, he reminded me, “The bigger they are, [and the more globally connected] the harder they fall.”  "Globally connected" must be understood as "too many Mexicans and people like that." You can practically see the teaming hoard of migrants with embroidered sombreros, Tony Lama snakeskin cowboy boots and Stetson hats flooding the inner precincts of Hohokam society with Mariachi music. Congress indian negro spaniard
Tom Langlois
576 E. Commonwealth Ave.
Salt Lake City, Utah 84106-1402
Phoenix falling
Douglas Unfug
Douglas Unfug
Mar 06, 2009 10:43 AM
I see the migrant/immigrant aspect here as an indicator of a culture or civilization that has grown beyond it's ability to self-sustain. While it would be easy to misunderstand, and our current situation has politicized the issue, (I live in Colorado, where our illustrious Tancredo obviously doesn't know the state constitution was written in 3 languages when first published, English, Spanish, and German), we must see this as a statement about the status of the culture that has metastisized and is going to it's end. Paradoxically, the group identified as the 'infux of migrants are likely the descendants of the peoples who fled when phoenix collapsed the last time. A reference like this might shift the emphasis.
Migrants & immigration
Apr 30, 2009 02:16 PM
I read this story with interest and thought it was well-done, if slightly apocalyptic (but that's part of the culture here, so with a grain of salt...) I was surprised, scrolling the comments to see your response. I took issue with Stapley's outlandish claim that they "recharge every drop" of groundwater & the author's willingness to accept the claim at face value, but I hadn't picked up on any anti-immigrant sentiments in the story & had to go back and look at your references.

Going back now, I can see your point. I'm not sure why he decided to focus on the influx of foreigners to illustrate the rapid growth the valley has suffered. And Tempe, being primarily a university town, is substantially more diverse than the rest of the area, so using Tempe's demographics skew the image of what the growth in Phoenix actually looks like. And of course, no one who has lived in the area would agree with the 80% white number, even conservative estimates put the Hispanic population around 25-30%.

But I think you're putting intent in his mouth, I think the description of diversity isn't necessarily to paint a negative image of barbarian invasions, just to highlight the parallels between the diversity of the Hohokam and Phoenix civilizations. Note that he lists the Midwest & Canada as the first migrant sources--which is true.

As a 3rd generation desert dweller, my image of degradation and growth in Phoenix isn't hispanic arrivals, who, as economic migrants live in denser communities and use less because they have less. Its the huge tracts of land scraped bare to make 2nd homes for snow birds and others from the midwest and northeast that buy cheap & new because they can. The unbridled consumption and growth that plagues Phoenix is certainly part of the Anglo mentality, the car-based community, the 4000sq ft homes for 2, the insistence on grass, swimming pools, and indoor air temperatures of 70, the resort mentality of golf courses & misters that have made the desert habitable for mosquitos.

As I read the article, it was the "huge American flags looming over marching rows of new houses", the freeways, the skyscrapers & the ridiculous amount of public lighting that carry the image of a society on the verge of causing its own demise, that was the overlying theme, not some perceived threat from non-whites.
Apr 09, 2008 02:35 PM


 Mr. Child's article clearly illustrates, as have so many  others, just how unsustainable our current 'civilization' is. It is easy to gauge the misjudgements of the Hohokam in retrospect; and yet the mote in their eye was nothing compared to the beam in ours. Modern Phoenix did not rise gradually over hundreds of years, with steady development of infrastructure in response to steady population growth. As a result, the Hohokam way of life persisted for over a millennium. Our modern system of extremely rapid boom/bust cycles of economic fluctuation, together with the most wasteful, inefficient, and downright stupid resource use profile since the Stone Age cultures of stampede-hunting, guarantees a much shorter cycle indeed.

As a matter of conjecture, one could speculate that the name Hohokam would be better applied to our memory, if it truly means 'all used up'...