Our feature story this issue tells the tale of two cities — a city and a fort, actually — along the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona. As veteran growth reporter Tony Davis shows, the two places have had markedly differing success in dealing with a shared water problem.
hand, there’s Fort Huachuca. When a federal judge dinged the
Army for its groundwater pumping, which he said could jeopardize
two endangered species in the San Pedro River, Army discipline
kicked in: The fort severely restricted outside watering, installed
water-efficient clothes washers, low-flow toilets and waterless
urinals, and — drum roll, please — cut water use by
more than 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the neighboring city of
Sierra Vista proved to be the nightmare that, for most of the West,
is reality. There, the effort to trim water use has run up against
wildcat development, a city government that grants rezonings like
they’re going out of style, and an influx of newcomers who
can drill wells and pump to their hearts’ content.
The difference? Politics, and the fact that water-reformers in
Sierra Vista have to contend with the morass of conflicting and
not-so-enlightened self-interest that typically goes by the handle
of "democratic society."
Sierra Vista is hardly a world
unto itself. The West’s pockets of civilization originally
took root around the region’s rivers — partly because
they provided the water people need, but also because they were
beautiful places. Since then, the cities and economies have mostly
overshadowed the rivers along whose banks they bloomed, and
we’ve gotten in the habit of acting like these waterways
don’t exist. And once we’ve drained them, the usual
reaction is to cast about elsewhere for more water that we can pipe
That’s an idea that Sierra Vista is kicking
around now — and one that would give it a place in the famous
line of Western water-redistribution schemes. Once L.A. drained the
Los Angeles River, it led the way by reaching in three different
directions for water: to the east side of the Sierra, then to the
Colorado River, and then to the Central Valley. Denver, on the
South Platte, pipes in water from the Colorado River on the other
side of the Continental Divide. Phoenix, on the Salt and Verde
Rivers, pulls water across 160 miles of blistering desert from the
Colorado. And Albuquerque, on the Rio Grande — the Rio
Grande! — now also reaches across the Continental Divide for
water from the San Juan River.
If we’re so adept at
rearranging reality, why can’t we finally ditch our trademark
Western infatuation with bringing rivers to us, and start
remembering the rivers that brought us here?