A dizzying look back from Phoenix’s future

A sci-fi scenario from 2008 offers insight into present day news.


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

This month, we got some bombshell news: The Arizona Department of Water Resources has recently concluded that, by 2121, water demand in the greater Phoenix metro area will exceed groundwater supplies by nearly 5 million acre-feet, or about 1.6 trillion gallons. As a result, the state will stop issuing assured water-supply determinations in the Phoenix Active Management Area based solely on groundwater supplies. That means that new housing developments that rely solely on wells will no longer be allowed; developers will have to get their water from somewhere else, which will be not only more costly, but could be difficult, since other water supplies are also shrinking. That may not slow growth, but it does provide a bit of a wakeup call in a state that is notoriously sleepy when it comes to dealing with water.

Recently, however, while I was digging through my digital archives — files I’ve saved from past reporting projects —  I ran into an old report from 2008 put out by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. Given the recent news, the report, called Megapolitan: Arizona’s Sun Corridor, is prescient. Its authors take on the sprawling urban beast that stretches from Prescott to the Mexico border, with Phoenix and Tucson at its heart. The urban-planning policy report looked ahead 30 years to imagine the challenges and opportunities facing the 8 million-person megalopolis that authors expected to see there by now.

A field of grass in Cadence subdivision in Mesa, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix.

It’s fascinating to read the report 15 years after it was written, not only to see what the policy nerds of 2008 got right and wrong about their future (and our present), but also because it provides a window into what was happening at that moment in time — and how much the region has and hasn’t changed in the last decade and a half. It’s especially interesting, given that the report was published just after the housing bubble burst spectacularly, hitting Southwestern cities especially hard.

The report is daunting to read, clocking in at 50-pages of demographics, economics, governance and land-use issues. But the authors distill many of their predictions down into a five-page speculative fiction scenario intended to “point out lessons, concepts and innovations that should be considered now so that good public policy will be made for the future of the Sun Corridor.”

In their imagined vision of the future, a Phoenician named Sylvia returns to her home-megalopolis in 2035 and reminisces about the state’s changes over the previous three decades. It’s a dizzying, dystopian-slash-utopian view of our present via the authors’ futuristic look from the past, and reading it kind of feels like watching old episodes of The Jetsons.

The scene opens with Sylvia’s Phoenix-bound flight from China descending toward one of the Sun Corridor’s four major airports. The plane passes over a 10,000-acre concentrated solar project — the world’s largest — as Sylvia explains to her companion that the 2008 financial crisis shocked right-wing leaders into taking a more progressive path and redirecting the state’s economy from reliance on single-family home construction to a “knowledge economy,” based on science, information and technology. To prepare Arizonans like Sylvia for all of this, state lawmakers had made education a top priority. (It’s science fiction, after all.) She then boards a vehicle that merges onto the “smart lane” on I-17; the future is still clogged with cars, though now they’re electric, moved by induction coils underneath the asphalt and guided by something akin to AI.

Phoenix, which has been called the world’s least sustainable city.

Looking back from 2035, Sylvia informs us that a drought first gripped the state in 2018, and had not let go by 2035. That resulted in a lot of dust — in 2022, sci-fi Sylvia says, Newsweek declared the Sun Corridor the “new dustbowl.” That actually slowed population growth for a time. But water scarcity was still not a problem. In the 2020s, our narrator explains that “the Sun Corridor’s water managers said the population of 8 million still had plenty of water supplies despite decreasing rainfall” thanks to new technologies such as desalination and conservation measures. “Stretching water supplies insured that growth could continue,” Sylvia says, while her colleague gapes out the EV’s window at a stucco sea of single-family homes and abandoned big-box stores.

Now let’s fast forward, or rewind, or whatever to the present day to see how those prophecies held up:

  • Tucson and Phoenix may be sprawling towards each other, but they haven’t merged to form any kind of cohesive megapolitan area. And the Sun Corridor still has a way to go before it reaches 8 million people.

  • Solar installations are slowly blanketing public land in Arizona, but not nearly to the extent the report predicted. Renewable energy has yet to displace fossil fuel use: The state currently gets just 10% of its electricity from solar. Natural gas and nuclear provide the bulk of the state’s power, though a new wind facility recently came online at a working cattle ranch.

  • But knowledge itself isn’t necessarily growing along with the knowledge economy. Arizona is still the nation’s stingiest state when it comes to public school spending — so much for the prioritizing education prediction — and it consistently ranks near the bottom for educational attainment. Politically, the state has moved slightly to the left, but the Legislature is still dominated by the right wing.

  • Phoenix has been called the world’s least sustainable city, though the city’s leaders hope to make it the most sustainable desert city in the world. But Newsweek has not declared Phoenix the “new dustbowl.” Dust storms do rip through from time to time, but so far, dust is not the most significant effect of climate change, nor has it dampened population growth the way the authors expected.

  • A more accurate scenario would have had Sylvia — the fictional narrator — at least mention the blistering heat, which may be the most consequential effect of climate change in Phoenix. A recent peer-reviewed study found that if a power outage were to occur in Phoenix during an extreme heat event and disable the air conditioning, nearly 800,000 people would require emergency health care, and some 13,000 residents would die. Even without that sort of calamitous event, heat kills in the region: Last year in Maricopa County, there were 425 heat-related deaths — compared to 49 in 2008, when the Sun Corridor report was written — and so far this year five people have died from confirmed heat-related causes. 

  • The 2008 soothsayers were basically right about water scarcity, though: So far, it hasn’t limited growth. In 2022 ,more than 2,000 building permits were issued per month in the Phoenix metro area, and Maricopa County remains one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions. In 2008, the authors write, the conventional wisdom was, essentially: “Why worry about water?” Water managers assured the populace they could accommodate growth by transferring water from agriculture to housing or from wet regions to the desert. But this Pollyanna-ish attitude seems to be changing … at last.

    Pipes awaiting installation at a new housing development in Casa Grande, Arizona, in 2021. The development is roughly halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, metropolitan areas.

Predicting the future is hard, and the report’s authors were relatively foresightful, even if their predictions about dust and political shifts were a bit off. They believed that a dustbowl would spark a new urge for sustainability — and get a new governor elected, who would declare: “Our past is haunting our future. We must face the challenge of restoring our land by changing our ways or suffer dire social, economic and environmental consequences. It’s time for extraordinary deeds, not merely words, regarding the sustainability of the most populous part of our state.”

In related news:

Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to a plan to slash their Colorado River water consumption by 3 million acre-feet over the 2023-2026 period, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts coming by the end of 2024. It’s being hailed as a breakthrough by some — it’s a deal, after all, which is more than anyone has come up with so far — and panned as a boondoggle by others, who point out that it’s only temporary and isn’t nearly enough to save the river system from collapse.

Details remain scant. We do know that it will cost taxpayers about $1.2 billion to compensate users for giving up 2.3 million acre-feet of that water. But we don’t know which state or users will bear the brunt of the cuts. It’s probably safe to assume that at least some agricultural fields — i.e., alfalfa — will have to be fallowed. To see how the deal may play out in the vast fields of the Imperial Irrigation District — the Colorado River’s biggest single water-user — check out Janet Wilson’s fine reporting for the Desert Sun, which gets into some of the nitty-gritty details of paying farmers not to farm.

The big winter snows have given the Lower Basin states and their neighbors a bit of breathing room. Lake Powell’s surface level has shot up 50 feet — or added 3 million acre-feet of water — since its low point in mid-April, quelling fears that levels would fall below the minimum needed for hydropower production. It has also made previously unusable boating ramps accessible. This is mostly because snowmelt is still gushing into the reservoir from the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, but it also helps that officials have released less water from Glen Canyon Dam than in the past to buoy lake levels.

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

SCOTUS has weighed in on WOTUS, and it doesn’t look good for the West’s wetlands, arroyos and ephemeral streams. That is, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a couple wanting to build a cabin on a soggy parcel next to Priest Lake in Idaho, unanimously determining that the parcel does not qualify as Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, meaning it is not protected by the Clean Water Act. More consequential was the majority (but not unanimous) opinion in which Justice Samuel Alito defers to the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2006 Rapanos plurality opinion, writing that WOTUS “encompasses ‘only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water forming geographical features that are described in ordinary parlance as streams oceans, rivers and lakes.’” That could void federal protections on a good percentage of the Southwest’s arroyos and streams, writes Emily Benson for High Country News, depending on how federal agencies interpret the opinion. | High Country News

If the effects of climate change — prolonged heat waves, drought, more intense wildfires and extreme weather — don’t discourage growth in the Western U.S., maybe the insurance companies will. State Farm and Allstate recently announced they will stop issuing new home insurance policies in California due in part to increased fire risk. This is only the latest flare-up in the long-smoldering insurers’ mass withdrawal from California and other fire-prone states, report CalMatters’ Ben Christopher and Grace Gedye. Since homeowners’ insurance is a requirement for almost all home loans, the move will ripple out to the real estate industry. But so far it hasn’t halted home sales, since plenty of firms are still offering new policies, even in California — at least for now. | Associated Press, CalMatters

In early June, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland formally prohibited new oil and gas leasing on federal lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park for the next 20 years. Pueblo leaders, Indigenous advocates and archaeology groups celebrated the protection of the 10-mile buffer zone, which contains an estimated 4,700 cultural sites — though some would like to see the leasing moratorium expanded to the entire region. But an event planned to commemorate the ban was disrupted by a group of Navajo allottees who blocked the road into Chaco in protest. They worry the ban will stifle oil and gas development on their lands, thereby reducing the royalties they receive from that production. That’s despite the fact the ban does not apply to allotment or tribal lands or, for that matter, existing leases or drilling. The ceremony was moved to Albuquerque. | Source NM, NDN Collective, Archaeology Southwest, High Country News 

And we regret to inform you of some very sad news: Charles Wilkinson, scholar, lawyer, author and professor, has passed. Wilkinson, a law professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, was one of the foremost authorities on public land, natural resource and federal Indian law. But his knowledge and influence went far beyond academia and the courts. He authored several books — from Fire on the Plateau to Crossing the Next Meridian — that not only continue to serve as invaluable reference material for those who want to understand the Western United States, but also make for damned good reading. He coined the term “Lords of Yesterday” to refer to the antiquated natural resource concepts and laws that were wielded to colonize the West and pillage it for its resources. And he was instrumental in the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in Utah. Wilkinson will be sorely missed. | High Country News


We want to know what’s on your summer reading list! What books, magazines and newsletters are you reading or looking to read this summer? Send your list to us in an e-mail, or fill out HCN’s “What are you reading?” form.

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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