By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
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By Weston Phippen
Lasting from seven to ten years, these cycles of scant rainfall occur in distant northern Arizona mountains that feed the Salt and Verde rivers, Phoenix's main water supplies.
The last hundred-year drought ravaged Phoenix at the turn of the century.
Scientists do not know when the next drought will come.
The Hohokam Indians were the first in the Valley to irrigate their farms with canals stretching out from the Salt River. The Indians fled the area 500 years ago. One theory claims the Hohokam exodus was caused by a severe dry cycle.
Settlers rebuilt the Hohokam canals and prospered in the late 19th century.
For a while.
Until the drought of 1897 to 1904, the worst drought since locals began recording the river's flow. Farms deteriorated into wastelands. Hundreds of settlers again abandoned the Valley.
Those who stayed on rationed what little water was left. Some were forced to survive, along with their animals, on fruits from prickly pear cacti and beans from mesquite trees.
A desert cowboy later recalled that during the height of this hundred-year drought, he and his horse encountered a newborn calf trying to suckle its mother, who had died of thirst. The calf "looked at me pleadingly, but there was nothing I could do for it, so I rode on with sorrow in my heart, thinking of the ruthless cruel ways of nature," the cowboy later wrote.
Then the rains came.
The survivors of the 1897 drought vowed they'd never again be thirsty. They built a series of dams on the Salt River, and its tributary, the Verde River, to sustain them during dry cycles. But the lakes, as it turned out, disappointed them.
Fifty years later, from 1940 to 1950, a drought far less severe than the drought of 1897 ravaged the northern mountains that fed the rivers. The lakes on the Salt and Verde shrank to ponds. In some places, lake beds were mud flats, and a man could thrust his entire arm down into giant cracks in the dried earth.
It was during this last drought crisis that forward-thinking Phoenicians began to realize that the Valley could not prosper, indeed, could not survive, unless it had a viable drought plan.
The solution had two camps--those who wanted to conserve the groundwater and those who believed that technology could bring in water from distant places. Both sides have had their victories.
Some leaders with foresight, such as former Governor Bruce Babbitt and Wes Steiner, the first director of the Department of Water Resources and a noted authority on water issues in the West, said the key to drought survival lay in a vast basin of groundwater--hundreds of millions of gallons of it--that stretched beneath the Valley from one mountain range to another. They saw that farmers and city dwellers alike were pumping the groundwater faster than nature could replace it. They understood that unless the groundwater was preserved, a drought might once again drive people out of the desert.
Other Valley leaders, such as Senator Barry Goldwater, insisted that it would be possible to combat hundred-year droughts with the magic of modern technology. The champions of technology pushed for the taxpayer-funded Central Arizona Project--a $3.7 billion, 336-mile concrete aqueduct designed to pump water uphill all the way from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. But this water supply is unpredictable, overcommitted and subject to Indian claims, which are now making their way through the courts.
From the beginning, groundwater has been a highly politicized issue in Arizona.
In 1980 Governor Babbitt and the groundwater advocates scored a victory. Arizona legislators passed a new law to protect and preserve the state's groundwater as a natural resource, to limit its pumping in order to preserve it for the future.
Essentially, the 1980 groundwater code says that by the year 2025, Arizonans cannot withdraw more groundwater than is replaced by nature. The goal is to store water underground so that it can be used during droughts.
With the new law came a new state agency, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (DWR), charged as keepers of the groundwater "bank account." "The groundwater basin ought to be considered the flywheel for the water supply," says Steiner, the water expert who became the first DWR director. "When there are droughts, you can pump the groundwater and sustain urban development. When water is plentiful in the rivers, then you don't pump groundwater and let it replenish."
Shortly after the 1980 groundwater law was passed, severe and extensive groundwater pollution was discovered in the Valley's groundwater bank account.
Ironically, DWR, the agency that promotes the idea of forcing polluters to finance full-scale cleanup efforts today in order to protect water in the future, was never trusted by environmentalists. Former DWR hydrologist Phil Briggs says environmentalists viewed DWR as a puppet of large water users, such as the cities.
As a result, in 1986 Babbitt pushed for a new state agency, the Department of Environmental Quality. One of DEQ's principal duties is to police the purity of the state's groundwater.
Briggs fought hard in the late 1980s to ensure that DWR would have some say in groundwater cleanup, but supervision of cleanups across the state has been, in most cases, handled by the rival agency DEQ.