Why Growing Smarter Will Grow Old Fast

The so-called Growing Smarter measure would prevent the state from enacting strict growth controls. At the same time, however, it would free up $220 million for land preservation.

Benton's latest project is a 12-home enclave a few blocks from Mill Avenue. The two-story homes with basements and porches are laid out in a cul-de-sac to encourage community activity. Benton believes there is opportunity to build more than 10,000 homes near urban cores throughout the Valley. But municipalities, he says, need to adopt policies that encourage infill.

"There is more opportunity for the preservation of land on the outside of our community if we figure out how to make it more beneficial to accommodate growth inside our existing boundaries," Benton says.

It's a sobering walk through the decaying forest that leads to the summit in the Four Peaks Wilderness area 40 miles east of Phoenix.

Tens of thousands of pine trees, bark baked black by a tremendous 1996 wildfire, wait to topple to the ground. Scrub oak flourishes from the roots of the dead trees.

Scattered fields of yellow wildflowers shout of late-season rebirth under the autumn sun.

To the east, range after range of deep-blue mountains stretch to the horizon. Below, extending across the Tonto Basin, lies the once-turbulent Salt River, its vigor tamed by Roosevelt Dam.

The granddaddy of the Salt River Project's six-dam water-storage system along the Salt and Verde rivers, Roosevelt Dam eight decades ago set the stage for the Valley's growth.

Roosevelt Dam was the first federal reclamation project in the United States. It triggered the development dynamo that has erased massive sections of the Sonoran Desert in a lifetime. Over the ensuing decades, more grand water projects, culminating with the Central Arizona Project, have filled Arizona's water needs.

Incredibly, there now is enough water for more than 10 million people to live in Arizona--even more, if strict water-conservation practices are employed and every drop is siphoned from the handful of remaining free-flowing desert and mountain streams.

The westward view from the peaks is obscured by a haze hovering above the Salt River Valley. Twenty years ago, the White Tank Mountains 70 miles away seemed close--but on this September afternoon, they are invisible. Beneath the dusty smog, the Valley's urban grid carpets the desert.

Breaking the geometric monotony of houses, shopping centers and highways is a half-mile-wide dirt trail that meanders through the metropolis--the Salt River.

One hundred years ago, the Salt River corridor was lined with cottonwoods and sycamores. The river was filled with giant, six-foot-long Colorado squaw fish that farmers skewered with pitchforks and ground up for fertilizer for fields irrigated by the Salt.

All the water has been long diverted from the river for "consumptive" purposes. The once free-flowing Salt River is now known as the "normally dry" Salt River.

The death of the lower Salt has not been widely lamented.
The dessication of a desert river has done nothing to slow Arizona's development juggernaut from reaching ever farther into the desert.

With natural limits to growth rendered irrelevant by technology, the future of the Sonoran Desert will be decided in the political arena.

And with the legislature hesitant to aggressively address growth controls, voters will have to make the calls. Proposition 303 is undoubtedly the first of many growth-control and growth-deregulation initiatives that will be fought.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address: jdougherty@newtimes.com

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