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


Page 4

As I left Cox’s site, I passed banners flying from a construction fence around the dig. The banners were printed with environmental propaganda, a soothing font on a palo verde-green background designed to calm the nerves of those driving by at reckless speeds.

“think, build and live sustainably,” one banner read.

“the future looks green…” read another.

These messages had no capital letters, as if to magnify their understatement, seeming to read:

A new transportation center is going in, serving as a light rail and bus station for the city’s new transit system. The station will be Tempe’s first truly “green” government building, the first one in the state with a desert garden installed as a roof. Bonnie Richardson, the architect who spearheaded this project, told me getting a green building approved in this city is a warlike negotiation. The building will use gray water. It will be made primarily of local materials. Natural lighting will be used so that in many parts of the building electric lights will not be needed. Richardson had to fight for all of it.

“My engineers want to throw out the water recycling system,” Richardson complained. “They tell me it’s not cost-effective. Of course it’s not. Water is too cheap out here.”

Even though Richardson sounds embattled, her voice is bright with optimism. She thinks the tide can be turned, the city saved, even as she accuses its citizenry and planners of being mostly shortsighted.

Incredulously, Richardson asked, “Do you realize new buildings are rarely designed to last more than 20 years?”

Her new building will last 80 years. But none of it will be constructed until the final Hohokam floor has been excavated from the site.

“I am glad that archaeologists are getting what they need before we go in,” Richardson said. “They have a sense of time most people don’t. I can’t get anyone else to talk about anything longer than a two-year time span.”


I felt a little more cheery after talking with Bonnie Richardson. Maybe green buildings will spring up everywhere, like Hohokam platform mounds did in the final centuries. Maybe new Phoenicians will start using water intelligently and organize themselves into a multi-ethnic desert utopia.

What is the likelihood of such a future? For the nuts and bolts of urban progress, I spoke with Don Stapley, Phoenix real estate broker, Maricopa County supervisor, and Republican.

“I think we’re ahead of the curve,” Stapley said, his voice intelligent and coaching. “We’re fragile because we’re a desert. But we have tremendous weather and diverse job opportunities. Today we are a technology center, and we have booming biotechnology. We’re graduating thousands of engineers. We have phenomenal water projects. All you have to do is fly by helicopter and look out. We’ve got more canals than rivers through any other American city, a labyrinth of laterals and ditches.”

Stapley has reason to wave the Phoenix flag. His family has lived in the basin since the 1870s, since the very birth of the city. He’s got a major street named after his family, and a paper trail of fame and endowment following him generation by generation. His great grandfather held the sole hardware supply contract for the construction of the Roosevelt Dam along the Salt River, a dam that secured Phoenix’s water future.

I asked Stapley about the city’s artificial waterways, noting that they are often built right on top of Hohokam canals, as if involuntarily mirroring the past.

“Do you think we might face the same future?” I asked.

“No,” Stapley answered. “Unlike the Hohokam civilization that preceded us, I believe the foundation our modern city is built upon is less susceptible to natural cycles of boom and bust. We have some of the most progressive groundwater regulations in the world. We recharge every drop. In addition, our forebears Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater brought about the largest irrigation system ever built when they brought Colorado River water through the Central Arizona Project.

“The Hohokam achieved amazing feats for their time, but I think we are far ahead of them.”


How far ahead are we, really? The Hohokam lasted 1,500 years. The city of Phoenix did not get its true, populous foothold until after the 1960s, when air conditioning became widely available. We have about 1,450 years to go.

Charlie Ester doesn’t see the water supply, or Western civilization for that matter, lasting nearly so long. Ester is a hydrologist working for the Salt River Project, one of two suppliers of water to the city. He and his colleagues watch the high country snowpack and make their calculations, deciding when Phoenix will turn from one reservoir to the next, turning on groundwater pumps to augment the surface supply, then turning them off to conserve aquifers.

“There is no civilization without water,” Ester explained from behind his desk at SRP headquarters in Phoenix. “If it does not rain every year, and reservoirs go dry, and there is nothing to pump, we’re moving.”

From Ester’s vantage, the current supply looks both good and bad. There is plenty of water for Phoenix now, but how long will it last?

Ester laid out the Phoenix situation for me, and it sounded similar to the environmental shift that heralded the end of the Hohokam. “Up until the 1990s, the worst drought we’d seen lasted seven years. So, we happily went along planning for seven-year droughts. We have storage-planning diagrams based solely on seven years,” he said. “The current drought began in 1995, so 2002 was year number seven, and we were thinking it was going to end soon. Then, 2003 was dry, 2004 was dry. We got to 2006, and it was as dry as 2002. This could last 20, 30 more years. It’s been a real eye-opener for us at SRP.

“We may not have as robust a water supply as we thought we did.”

No need to run for the nearest exit, should you happen to live in Phoenix. Ester is merely thinking in an archaeological time frame. Looking at it optimistically, he sees another few hundred years of water and prosperity. Looking at it the other way, well, he wouldn’t want to project his opinion.

“The tendency is to think we’ve got it right this time, that it’s never going to happen to us,” Ester said. “But you know it is going to happen. It has to. History will repeat itself.”