No one is saying you should waste water, but in Phoenix it's hard to come up with a reason not to

Phoenix is an oasis. Parts may look dry and crunchy, but in this Valley, the spigot is always running.

Drive through any older Tempe neighborhood and you'll find huge mulberry trees and lush green lawns, irrigated by floods of water that appear overnight. Acre after acre in Scottsdale is occupied by rolling green golf courses. We've even got an entire town devoted to water: Fountain Hills.

Backyards have pools. Parks have grass. Just out of town, cotton farms flourish.

Jamie Peachey
Jamie Peachey

None of it was ever meant to be. This should be a different kind of oasis, filled with palo verdes, cottonwoods, animals, and dirt.

Instead, we long ago dammed the rivers — damn the consequences. In this green day and age, shouldn't we be horrified at our flagrant guzzling? Our neighbors in Tucson send out water cops to write citations for unfixed leaks, and Denver invented an entirely new kind of landscaping to keep water use down.

But in metropolitan Phoenix, there are no restrictions at all on water use.

And the truth is that it doesn't matter. Not now, anyway. You want your fellow Phoenicians to conserve? Good luck trying to persuade them, because the truth is that when it comes to water use in Arizona, it's use it or lose it — so fill the pool, water the yard, and hope that the Valley's water rights don't ever change dramatically. Or that we don't suffer a drought of Biblical proportions, in which case we'll all be screwed.

When you get out the ice for that cocktail this summer, give a poolside toast to Carl Hayden and Mark Wilmer, the godfathers of Arizona water, who did everything short of employing Mafia-esque tactics back in the 1940s and '50s to secure a good deal for the water supply in our state.

To be sure, our nation's had a water crisis on the brain almost that long.

In 1966, Texas Congressman Jim Wright warned that the United States was running out of water. In the '80s, the Wall Street Journal said water would soon be what energy was to the '70s. Just this year, Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations declared water the "oil of this century."

All of it is true in other parts of the world.

But, ironically, not in Phoenix.

In fact, we had to let water go down the drain this past winter. The system that supplies water to the Valley, run by the Salt River Project, was actually too full. Throughout the first three months of 2008, SRP released enough water from its reservoir system to support a Phoenix household for a year, which is why that dustbowl we normally call the Salt River still has water trickling through it in late April.

The state's reservoirs are still 96 percent full. Roosevelt Lake is the fullest it has ever been. Another reservoir might help, but getting one isn't easy.

Water in Arizona never is.

Because of the way water rights work, we can't share our water. We can use it, or it can sit there until it evaporates.

That's not necessarily a good thing, but to change it would require the undoing of a hundred years of water law. Good luck on that one.

Gregg Garfin, who has dedicated his life to studying droughts at the University of Arizona's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth, confirms that Phoenix is flush. "People ask me, 'Where should I live if I want a reliable water supply?' and I always say, 'Phoenix.'"

No one is saying you should waste water. But in this town, it's awfully hard to come up with a reason not to.


In Arizona, water comes from underground reserves, the Colorado River, and smaller river systems like the Verde and Salt. Turns out, the Valley has always been an oasis, dating back to when the Hohokam settled the area.

The first settlers to claim water rights landed here in the 1860s. The way of claiming them hasn't really changed since then — whoever gets there first, gets the water.

By the early 1900s, the Salt River Project formed as a way to incorporate water rights. (It wasn't an easy transition. Some tempers were so out of control that water owners patrolled their riverbanks with guns.) Political battles replaced the other kind, and suffice it to say, Phoenix won.

By the 1920s, Arizona politicians were fighting California for a portion of the Colorado River. The battle didn't end until 1963, when attorney Mark Wilmer won a favorable decision for Arizona in a U.S. Supreme Court battle that dragged on for 11 years, opening the doors for U.S. Senator Carl Hayden's masterwork: the Central Arizona Project.

For better or worse, CAP is the reason Phoenix is what it is. Thanks to the project, we have plenty of water, but we also have plenty of urban sprawl. Ironically, Phoenix might've been a denser (some would say more livable and more interesting) city if it'd had less water to work with.

That's not to say there aren't water problems. Phoenix doesn't have them, but the rest of the state certainly does.

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7 comments
DoggieCombover
DoggieCombover

Conservation in the Phoenix metro area means saving it for developers so they can keep on doing what they do. I use as much water as I care to, without much thought of conserving, for that reason.

Ryan
Ryan

This article is grossly inaccurate, and is oozing with negativity. The article's message inherently makes zero sense. The unfortunate issue, and frankly the only fact the author seemed to be on top of, is that of water politics in the West being the driver here. Drought or no drought, she got it right in saying use it or lose it. Hello, this applies to dams, prior appropriators, and water rights attached to land ownership, not to people living in a city of 5 million that can use as much water as they want.

All hope is lost if all Phoenicians think in this negative and "holding out till the big one" way. Get with it New Times.

Shane
Shane

Get it straight.... 1.0 acre foot = 325,851 gallons. An acre is 43,560 square feet. There are approx 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot, so to cover an acre of land with one foot of water is 7.4808 X 43,560 = 325,851 gallons. The avg US urban household uses .3 acre feet per year, or 97,755 gallons.

Erich
Erich

Your report is grossly inaccurate and without writing a comment as long as your article, I would like to point a few things out.1-golf courses in the valley ALL use reclaimed water to water with and fill there lakes. We need the golf courses to get rid of our treated (grade A) wastewater. 2- Fountain Hills uses reclaimed water as well.3- Do your research, and you'll find the rest of your inaccuracies.

Joe Sitarzewski
Joe Sitarzewski

The note: (To put things in perspective, an acre-foot is 235,851 gallons, and it takes 287,000 acre-feet to support two average Phoenix households for a year.) in your article is grossly inaccurrate. It may take 235,851 GALLONS to support two average Phoenix households for a year, but I rather doubt it would take 67,689,237,000 GALLONS (287,000 acre-feet) to support two average Phoenix households for a year, even though that may actually be closer than an 1/2 acre-foot per year estimate. Also, the reason Arizona will never change water law is because the Governor and Legislature are both owned by SRP and CAP. The 85% of the population in Phoenix and Tucson won't give up a single drop of water and they'll continue trying to figure out any way possible to steal it from rural Arizonans.

Omar Tentmaker
Omar Tentmaker

Here is approximately how water in the western U.S. is used: irrigation of crops,76%; power plants for cooling,13%; municipal,8%;,industrial,1%; and livestock,1%. Most of the water used for irrigation is for low value applications, especially hay. This water allocation arrangement got started early in the last century when almost the only folks who lived in the west were farmers. Today there is ample water in the west. The real issue is political: getting the water away from low value farming crops to higher value applications.

 
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