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

    PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BEN GARRISON
  • A Hohokam dwelling from Neolithic times, now preserved in the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument outside Phoenix

    NPS HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION
  • Phoenix today

    KENT KNUDSON/PHOTOLINK
  • A map shows how modern canals follow the contours of ancient ones

    COURTESY WATERHISTORY.ORG AND SALT RIVER PROJECT
  • Archaeologist Emil Haury stands in an excavated Hohokam canal at the Snaketown site near Phoenix, circa 1964

    PHOTO COURTESY ARIZONA STATE MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA, HELGA TEIWES
  • An archaeologist unearths the remains of an ancient Hohokam structure that was discovered when the old Phoenix Civic Plaza was demolished

    ANGELA CARA PANCRAZIO/THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC
  • Charlie Ester, a hydrologist with the Salt River Project, on one of the canals that carries Phoenix’s lifeblood

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

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

    MARK SKALNY
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.