Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated
A scorching, 120-degree breeze stirs dust in the streets before passing through the windowless ruins of former mansions on the flanks of Camelback Mountain.
The largest ghost town in history extends to every horizon of the Valley of the Sun -- now a superheated no man's land of crumbling walls, dead trees, and dry, debris-filled pits that used to be swimming pools. Only a few settlements remain, mostly to provide services for people passing through.
The date is January 1, 2114.
Phoenix, like the mythical bird it was named after, has died once again. Only there will be no hope-affirming resurrection this time.
As the Hohokam abandoned the area in the 1400s following a good run of more than a millennium, modern settlers also now have fled.
The catastrophe didn't happen overnight. It followed decades of little to no flow from the Colorado River, extended drought in the Gila and Salt watersheds, and the pumping of all groundwater. The southwestern United States was seen as the bull's-eye of climate change in the early 21st century, and central Arizona was slammed with an epic drought as bad as or worse than anything in the prehistoric record.
Time-travel back to 2014: Warnings of such a bleak future are sounding. Looking into their crystal balls, some environmentalists and climate experts envision this science-fiction-like destiny for the region, give or take a few decades. At best, they see a region beset by extreme global-warming effects that spur not total abandonment, perhaps, but an economic tailspin, population decline, and far fewer days of pleasant weather for the hardy souls who choose to remain here.
"Temperatures could regularly hit the 130s in Phoenix by the second half of this century due to human-caused climate change," University of Arizona climate-change scientist Jonathan Overpeck told an Arizona legislative panel in 2009.
The question isn't whether the manmade Colorado River reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell will go dry, it's when, Overpeck said. And it might happen by 2050. Economic calamity would result.
"Once the Central Arizona Project [canal] goes dry for one year, our state is dead," Overpeck warned. "People won't want to live here anymore."
In the 2010 book Dead Pool, geologist James Lawrence Powell offers a more comprehensively bleak future for the Valley than the one presented. It says it will happen in the 2020s.
Following a water emergency and economic collapse, Powell describes how residents will flee: "Businesses and families begin to abandon Phoenix, creating a Grapes of Wrath-like exodus in reverse. Long lines of vehicles clog the freeways, heading east toward the Mississippi and north toward Oregon and Washington. Burning, hot, parched, and broke, the city that rose from the ashes achieves its apogee and falls back toward the fire."
Wikimedia Commons/Joe Mabel
A 2011 book about Phoenix, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City, paints a gloomy portrait of an area burdened by insurmountable challenges. The author, Andrew Ross, a New York University professor of social and cultural analysis, plays up the apocalyptic visions of future Phoenix for full effect.
Ross' book quotes Jeff Williamson, former director of the Phoenix Zoo who now lives in Los Angeles, stating that modern civilization based on self-destructive human decisions will fall faster here than anywhere else.
"I hope that Phoenix goes down to about 40,000 people," Williamson is quoted as saying. Ross shares with readers the belief of San Francisco essayist Rebecca Solnit, who stated: "Phoenix will be like the Jericho or Ur of the Chaldees, with the shriveled relics of golf courses and the dusty hulls of swimming pools added on."
Recent doomsayers include conservationist William deBuys, who lives on a remote farm in New Mexico and imagines Phoenicians "taking the road out of town" sooner rather than later -- perhaps "one or several decades" from now.
"If cities were stocks, you'd want to short Phoenix," says the first line of a widely published March 14 op-ed by deBuys, author of 2011's A Great Aridness.
Though the article originally was headlined "Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs: We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries," it was picked up by countless blogs and Internet news sites and placed under headlines like, "Phoenix May Not Survive Climate Change" (salon.com) and "Could Phoenix Soon Become Uninhabitable?" (thenation.com).
Surrounded by blackened wildlands scorched by fire and plagued by epic dust storms that "bring life to a standstill," deBuys' future Phoenix is Hell on Earth.
After describing a litany of challenges faced by the country's 13th-largest metro area, deBuys concludes that when Valley residents "clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too."
Locally, the Arizona Republic has jumped on the Phoenix-is-doomed bandwagon.
Say goodbye to the beautiful autumns and winters we love, according to a November 2012 Republic article by Michael Clancy: "Ultimately, in a worst-case scenario, the experts predict a 'summer' season running from April to January, with temperatures near or above 100 degrees."
Metro Phoenix gets about half of its water from Apache Lake (seen here) and other lakes on the Salt River reservoir system, providing a buffer against smaller flows from the Colorado River.
Wikimedia Commons/Bernard Ga gnon
Phoenix's detractors have been around since the Hohokam canals began to be cleared and reused in the late 1800s.
Awareness of the fate of the Hohokam never is too far from the minds of those contemplating the future of the Phoenix metroplex.
But the notion of intolerably severe environmental and economic conditions that could result in a Hohokam-like abandonment of the area has picked up steam in the past few years, driven by the economic devastation of the Great Recession and the latest research about how climate change will affect the American Southwest.
Phoenix has become a symbol of the terrible toll of global warming. But far from its becoming the least sustainable city in the world, as Ross claims, Phoenix is one of the globe's most sustainable metro areas, for a variety of reasons.
One of the fastest-growing places in the United States, the Phoenix area's population has expanded so much and so quickly that growth itself is a scary problem. In 1960, the metro area contained about 726,000 residents. By 1985, it was 1.8 million. Today, it stands at about 4.3 million.
Perhaps the explosive growth makes it easy for some to imagine a similarly dramatic decline. After the boom times of the 1980s, environmentalists and critics of Valley social culture gained in strength as they preached against carelessness concerning water resources, pollution, over-development, lack of preservation of the natural landscape, dearth of an arts community, and soulless suburbs where people rarely get out of their vehicles.
These concerns still exist, and fear of economic and environmental collapse gives them a more urgent feel.
The recent recession's effects were acute here; property values were cut on average by 50 percent. Fortunes were lost, and many residents gave up on the place and moved out.
On top of that, books and articles published since the recession have taken the most dire predictions of climate scientists to heart, at the same time noting problems like the social discord wrought by local immigration enforcement.
The Phoenix-hating sentiments and predictions of calamity dovetail with the long-held belief by some environmentalists -- author Edward Abbey comes to mind -- that no large city should be here to begin with and that developers are destroying the Valley with the help of water and land prices kept cheap through artifice.
Pushback by local voices on the idea that Phoenix is doomed has been minimal. It's no longer fashionable, in the age of global warming, to suggest that Phoenix might be fine in the long run. Talk of solar power or wastewater reuse is acceptable in left-wing circles. But forget about large-scale projects that would all but ensure the sustainability of the area, such as nuclear power, desalination, and new reservoirs to capture rainwater and snowmelt.
Arizona State University's School of Sustainability, where you would expect to find consensus on Phoenix's long-term prospects, has been eerily silent on the matter. Talk to individual scholars and scientists at the school and you'll hear how optimistic they claim to be about the area's future, while they acknowledge that the myth of Phoenix as unsustainable seems to have pervaded the whole country.
The only person affiliated with ASU's sustainability institute to publicly counter the propaganda, Grady Gammage Jr., is a lawyer and part-time real estate developer, which may present a credibility problem for environmentalists. Gammage wrote a couple of op-eds for the Republic in recent years -- one after the publication of Bird on Fire and another this year after deBuys' op-ed -- defending the Valley's future.
Despite what Gammage thinks, experts at ASU and elsewhere in Arizona have failed to disabuse out-of-state sustainability zealots of the notion that Phoenix will all but be wiped off the face of the Earth. Even many locals have been duped.
One student at ASU's sustainability school expressed amazement after learning in class one day this year that Phoenix has a robust, diverse water supply likely to support population growth for decades to come.
"I never knew that!" she gushed.
On the whole, Arizona is watered by three main sources: State river water maintained in reservoirs, Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River, and underground water. A fourth source in increasing use is reclaimed wastewater. All the water used by municipalities combined amounts to less than 25 percent of that used by the entire state, while 70 percent supplies agriculture. As experts have noted over the years, shifting the water supply from farms to homes will buy Arizona a lot of time.
Perhaps the most important statistics related to the region's sustainability are population-growth projections. Long-term mobility trends in the United States, plus the idea that the Phoenix area is seen as a desirable place to live, mean that millions of people will move here in the next three decades.
Questions about the Valley's sustainability arise only because of the many years of abounding success predicted to lie ahead.
The prospects of Phoenix even look good for the far future -- considering that certain scientists warn that global warming eventually will cause New York, Seattle, and other coastal cities to be flooded by rising seas.
Roger Lidman, director of the Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park, in front of Hohokam ruins.
Hohokam is a Pima word meaning "those who vanished."
But when comparing the old and new civilizations of this region, the fact that the Hohokam disappeared is not the most interesting thing about them. The facts about the previous Valley occupants most pertinent to the current ones are these:
They lived in the Phoenix area for more than 1,000 years. They maintained one of the largest permanent settlements in New World prehistory north of the Aztecs. They used the most sophisticated water-management techniques north of the Incas. And what drove them away wasn't a long drought.
The Hohokam survived at least three extensive New World droughts.
During one period of low rainfall that researchers call the Great Drought of 1275-1300, Native Americans fled their pueblos in what is now New Mexico and Colorado -- and some are believed to have moved to more stable Hohokam settlements in central Arizona.
The Hohokam had experience in managing, or often merely trying to manage, the abundant water supply of the Salt and Gila rivers. Their culture is thought to have evolved from indigenous residents of the region in the first few centuries of the Common Era.
Modern Phoenix is inextricably connected to the Hohokam, as Arizona schoolchildren learn. The city's founding father is John William "Jack" Swilling, a "former Confederate soldier and deserter, Union Army freighter and scout, Arizona prospector, farmer and speculator," wrote Bradford Luckingham in his 1989 book, Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis.
Swilling was an alcoholic and drug addict who "died a pauper in a Yuma jail while awaiting trial for highway robbery," writes Luckingham. But "no one made an effort toward restoring the agricultural splendor of the Hohokam until Swilling made his appearance [in 1867]."
The Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park, 4619 East Washington Street, is one of the few Hohokam sites in the Valley that doesn't lie under asphalt and houses. The ruins there were once part of a settlement that existed in the Phoenix area for more than 1,000 years.
The original township of modern Phoenix is about a mile west of Pueblo Grande, says the park's director, Roger Lidman.
Impressive, remarkable, and amazing are adjectives that Lidman uses to describe the water-management feats of the Hohokam. The canal system probably began when someone gazing at the wide Salt River thought, "What if I dig a little bit of a ditch?" Lidman says.
By the early first millennium, the hardworking natives, using wood, stone tools, basketry, and muscle, had dug hundreds of miles of canals.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
The Phoenix area has an abundance of water, compared to many other regions in the American West, which made the settlement location ideal.
The Gila River runs west through southern Arizona and bumps north into the West Valley, where it meets the Salt River. The Salt, in turn, comes from the White Mountains in eastern Arizona before feeding the Gila. The Verde River flows south from Yavapai County before meeting the Salt, and the Agua Fria River flows south to meet the Gila.
Much of the area is a floodplain that's great for crops.
Productive land and multiple river sources have graced the area with more water and potential farmland than in other arid regions, including the Mohave Desert. That's why Phoenix supported a population of 20,000 to 50,000 for centuries, unlike the sites of modern cities in what are now New Mexico, Southern California, and Nevada, Lidman says.
In what is now modern Los Angeles, for example, conditions weren't right for settlements as large as the Hohokam's. Much of the water in L.A. flowed from steep grades in the mountains into the ocean, making it less capable of supporting large Native American farming communities, Lidman says.
Drought was a problem for the Hohokam, who couldn't store the Valley's water for drier years, as is done now. But even worse were floods. Too much water would blow out the head gates of the canals, requiring extensive re-digging. At the same time, the economic success of the area meant more people lived in the Valley toward the end of the Hohokam era, putting more pressure on the system because of an abundance of farms and the increased need for water-delivering canals.
Even with more people to help dig, the Hohokam civilization collapsed. In roughly 1450, long before the arrival of Spanish explorers, who named the Salt River in the late 1600s, the last Hohokam canal project stopped. They just gave up.
Nothing about the environment had changed dramatically compared to the experiences of the previous 1,000 years. It was the Hohokam who had changed. Astronomical predictions were very important to them, Lidman notes: "Maybe the people lost faith" that farming in the Valley was worth the effort.
The canals sat in disrepair for centuries before Swilling showed up and saw their potential. Within a year, pioneers had corn, barley, and wheat growing on land irrigated from the reborn waterways.
The conclusion is inescapable that the Hohokam could have stayed, if only they'd wanted to.
Arizona is littered with ghost towns from the 1800s, helping prove that when people no longer see a need for a town, it dies.
What the Hohokam teach modern Phoenicians about the future, then, is that the greatest sustainability challenge for this area isn't its environment -- it's whether there's the desire to live here.
Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist, gives good odds for Phoenix's future.
One reason Phoenix is picked on as the city with no future, Grady Gammage Jr. says, is its name.
Either Swilling or another pioneer, Darrell Duppa, both educated in the classics, came up with the moniker to represent the new settlement's rebirth from the old Hohokam town. The English word comes from the similar-sounding term used by the ancient Greeks to describe the myth of the Phoenix bird, which dies before it's reborn from its ashes in an endless cycle.
Nothing about modern civilization truly is sustainable -- 7 billion people on Earth trying to achieve a First World standard of living isn't sustainable. Phoenix and other modern cities will end at some point, everyone should agree. Climate change, war, and/or other human-caused environmental problems may hasten the end.
But modern Phoenix is maturing from its recent rebirth, not dying.
"The question is how we respond to challenges," Gammage says. "It's not like we're going to dry up and blow away anytime soon."
Marshall Vest, director of the U of A Economic and Business Research Center, says he's heard concerns for 40 years that Phoenix will run out of water, is getting hotter, and generally is damned. And, all the while, the masses have poured in.
The migratory flow of Americans has followed consistent patterns for decades from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt, and it won't change soon, even if average temperatures increase, he says.
Yes, overnight lows in the Phoenix area have risen dramatically since 1990, by 10 to 15 degrees. The "heat-island effect" of concrete and asphalt trapping solar radiation has made some summer nights here more miserable than they used to be, and it's expected to get worse. But, over the past 23 years, the Valley's population nearly has doubled.
That is, extreme heat doesn't keep people away.
Arizona's population is about 6.5 million, Vest says, and that's projected to rise to about 10 million in the next 30 years. The possibility of severe negative effects from climate change or other calamities isn't factored into the equation, he acknowledges.
The Maricopa Association of Governments also doesn't take into account the possibility of horrendous environmental changes in population projections it's required by law to prepare for the Governor's Office. That's because dramatic changes aren't considered probable in the 30-year time frame considered by planners, says Anubhav Bagley, a MAG statistics and information manager.
The official projections use the best information from state water and climate experts who try to be realistic about potential problems, Bagley says. Based on available data, MAG believes the county will have 6.2 million residents by 2040.
Bagley is impressed by the region's potential for growth, even in bad times. Maricopa County grew by 745,000 people -- a 24 percent increase -- from 2000 to 2010, a period that includes the economic downturn, he says. Census data shows the county grew by at least a few thousand people in its darkest modern years, from 2008 to 2010.
Smart water management has been key to past growth, and the area will have to be even smarter in the future.
Water managers, regional and city planners, politicians, and activists have struggled for years to build the infrastructure and analyze the complex legal negotiations over water rights that make the average resident's eyeballs glaze over. And average residents, so far, have had nothing to worry about. Water's relatively cheap, its quality's good, and it almost never fails to come out of the faucet.
In the early 20th century, following Swilling's visionary lead, the Phoenix community formed the organization that would evolve into Salt River Project, which manages the Salt and Gila watersheds.
With the feds' help, Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911. Other dams tamed the wild rivers and formed immense reservoirs in ways that Native Americans couldn't. The Hohokam canals, built along stunningly precise grades, were cleared and modernized with concrete. In 1980, a crisis of pumping too much groundwater was averted with a new law that requires "water banking" back into aquifers. Then came the Central Arizona Project canal, which Congress authorized in 1969 and now provides water to about 40 percent of the state's population.
New development in the state must prove that it has a 100-year water supply before it can be authorized, a standard not required in other states with potential water-shortage problems.
No one can predict the future with certainty, of course. Maybe it never will rain again in Phoenix. However, worst-case scenarios are not likely.
Climate change will be felt gradually, experts say. It may grow hotter over time, but it's already hot here, and a few more degrees won't matter. A dramatic end to rain, snow, and river flow, like the shutting off of a spigot, isn't a realistic prediction.
The worst 14-year period of drought in the past 100 years is taking place now, and scientists predict further reductions in the flows of the Colorado, Salt, Verde, and Gila rivers in the next few years. Releases of Colorado River water from Lake Powell will drop next year to their lowest level since the lake was filled in the 1960s. Yet, officials say, even if poor snowpack persists for another two years and a shortage is declared in 2016, resulting in fewer allocations for farms and underground aquifers, Valley residents would keep receiving their full share of CAP canal water. New development would continue.
"We're still growing into our water supplies," asserts Dave Roberts, executive manager for SRP's water-rights and contracts department. "Phoenix is among the most sustainable" among Southwest cities because of advance planning and conservation efforts.
The underground water-banking program has stored nearly two trillion gallons of water that can help the area get through extreme dry periods of little surface water, if it comes to that, Roberts says.
Meanwhile, per-capita water usage by Valley residents has decreased at least 20 percent since 1990 because of public awareness and such technology as water-efficient toilets.
The bottom line is that experts, like those at SRP, feel confident that water supplies for the Phoenix area will be sufficient to maintain the growth that fuels our economy for the next several decades. Regional water problems are expected during this time, because high-growth areas, including those in the East Valley's Superstition Vistas area, aren't "blessed with an abundant water supply," Roberts says. "Buckeye, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, Goodyear are where we are going to have to get creative."
After this time, as even more new residents arrive, estimated water supplies won't meet the expected demand, especially those from the Central Arizona Project canal. Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, says state planners are working to address the future "imbalance" predicted for 50 to 100 years from now.
"You're not going to get to a point where you just run out of water because you can't grow beyond what you have," she says, referring to the state's 100-year supply requirement for development. "There could be a drought that disrupts the supply. That's when you go to your other water supplies. Unlike Las Vegas, we're redundant."
With the double-edged sword of increasing demand and dwindling supply, however, eventually Phoenix and the rest of the state will need more options.
"Ocean desalination is the next supply," Roberts says. "The technology is there." One likely spot for a large-scale desalination plant is at the northern end of the Gulf of California, in Mexico, which isn't lined by million-dollar homes (like Southern California) and is relatively close to Phoenix.
Water could be piped in from there or traded with Mexico for part of its share of Colorado River water, experts say. The project, considered in some form since the 1960s, would need to involve an expensive energy source to power it -- maybe nuclear -- because desalination needs continuous, reliable electricity to function.
With a higher projected population at that time for Arizona and the six other Western states expected to join in on such a project, it would be easier to fund the expected $10 billion cost (based on today's currency value), Roberts says.
The subtitle of Andrew Ross' book about Phoenix, Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City, is fact-challenged.
Phoenix is way ahead in the game of sustainability, owing to nothing more than America's wealth.
"Least sustainable" would apply more to Nogales, Mexico, a city of about 220,000 that has doubled in population since 1990 and has neighborhoods that receive only intermittent water supplies. And water quality in Nogales barely would qualify for use on a Phoenix golf course.
Or take Beijing. Sure, it's been a municipality for at least 3,000 years. But with unprecedented growth, it's facing huge sustainability problems. Per-capita water allotment in Beijing is a tenth of the international average. The city and its outskirts plan to rely on a $62 billion diversion project under construction that will tap the Yangtze River in southern China to bring water north, and the country is spending another $3.3 billion to build air-polluting, coal-powered desalination plants on its east coast. Even when these projects are completed in a few years, it's unknown whether Beijing will meet its growing water needs.
In the United States, several cities are in worse shape, sustainability-wise, than Phoenix. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for example, received the highest risk rating by a group of utility investors in 2010. In Atlanta, which relies on just one main surface-water source, officials warned in 2008 that the city was just three months away from running out of fresh water. Closer to home, groundwater-pumping Tucson has more to worry about than Phoenix.
Yet Phoenix's sustainability prospects get the most attention in the media -- probably for no other reason than that it's really hot here.
"Will thirsty Phoenix survive climate change?" Natalie Muilenberg, a social-media editor for the ASU sustainability institute, asks readers in a July 10 article published on the university's news site.
Her short article, about a USA Today climate-change story on Phoenix, answers her own question with the statement "some believe so" -- suggesting that most don't believe so.
The irony of Muilenberg's article is that the USA Today story mentioned specifically that Phoenix was better suited for the drier future than most other places in the Southwest: "While Phoenix may be able to withstand a future with climate change due to its three water sources, other locations in the Southwest may not: [Greg Garfin, a University of Arizona climate scientist] says the most vulnerable areas for water in the Southwest are New Mexico, California, the Colorado Front Range, and Las Vegas."
Even without climate change, "mega-droughts" strangled the region periodically in the time of the Hohokam, lessening rainfall for decades at a time. If one of these mega-droughts takes hold and is worsened by reduced rainfall from climate change, according to a forthcoming article in the American Meteorological Society Journal, decades of stream flows "much lower than have been observed in the past 100 years would result."
But a regional mega-drought combined with climate change would affect other Western U.S. cities, too. Phoenix, more experienced in providing water for millions of people in a dry and drought-prone environment, indeed is better prepared for the possibility of a warmer, drier future than many cities.
Faced with less water and a larger population, the smaller towns and rural areas of Arizona will face stalled growth long before Phoenix.
"There is no new [Central Arizona Project] to unite Arizona water users with tantalizing visions of more water in the future," writes Thomas Sheridan in the 2012 edition of Arizona: A History. "The water we have now will flow up hills, down hills, and sideways toward money, and that money is in metro Phoenix. The rest of the state will fight over the scraps."
Reached at his office at New York University, Ross sounded embarrassed by his book's subtitle as he tried to defend it. He accused New Times of a fixation on the subtitle. But more exaggerations that attempt to back up the book's theme can be found in its pages.
"Phoenix is the most environmentally challenged of American cities," Ross wrote on page 50.
What about New Orleans, which sits below sea level in Hurricane Alley?
The statistics behind the first footnote in the introductory chapter are misleading, setting a bad precedent for the rest of the tome. Ross states that Arizona "added fossil fuels faster than any other state" since 1990. Though this may be true, it's only a function of the increased population. In fact, Arizona's per-capita fossil-fuel emissions were average among states before and after the latest population boom.
Ross argues that Mexican illegal immigration largely is the fault of climate change (the theory being that Mexicans are fleeing arid conditions in their country) and that Arizona's "ill treatment" of undocumented residents "was the first skirmish in the climate wars of the future."
It's an interesting hypothesis, but Ross' claim that the divisiveness of immigration enforcement creates metro Phoenix's greatest sustainability challenge fails to appreciate that multitudes of Hispanics, documented or not, move to the Valley. They find jobs and settle here, and now make up about 30 percent of the state's population. The growth of Hispanics in all but two counties, Pinal and Gila, has outpaced average growth for the past 20 years.
One of the most esteemed doomsday prophets is Jonathan Overpeck, a scientist who writers such as deBuys and Ross call the state's leading climatologist. The label may be accurate, but Overpeck also is a climate-change alarmist.
Other Arizona climatologists don't necessarily share his views or interpretation of climate-related data.
Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist, says she doesn't believe "for a second" Overpeck's statement that Arizona is "dead" if the CAP canal stops flowing for one year.
Overpeck "overstepped his bounds by saying that," she says.
Though climate studies do reveal a likelihood of reduced river flows, and it's possible that the Central Arizona Project may someday run dry for a whole year, "we can still manage," Selover says.
The situation might result in a reduction of water for farms, and maybe crackdowns on watering lawns or washing cars in Phoenix, but never a dead state, Selover says. She adds that even if the CAP went dry for that year, this doesn't mean it would be dry the next year, too.
Overpeck didn't respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
Selover, who's lived in Arizona since 1973, also takes issue with the November 2012 Republic story by Michael Clancy. The line about "summer" lasting from April to January in the future isn't attributed, and Selover's quoted immediately after it.
She tells New Times that she didn't say anything about a nine-month summer, nor would she have, because she doesn't think climate change will have such a result on the state.
The longtime resident gives good odds to Phoenix's future because it has "economic engines" that provide jobs.
Professor Chuck Redman, founding director of ASU's School of Sustainability, agrees with Selover that Phoenix's future will benefit because it's "relatively new" and is like a blank slate for sustainability ideas.
One shining example of this, he says, is the sustainability school. Redman credits ASU President Michael Crow with having the vision to confront the expected problems of climate change by launching the school, known by its abbreviation SOS. Though the school's mission is to help the whole world, "probably the majority of what we do is Phoenix-oriented," Redman says.
It only makes sense that ASU should help sustain Phoenix, of course. Since 2002, when Crow became president, the university has grown tremendously in student population, buildings, and satellite campuses. The campuses' square footage has grown by 26 percent since 2007. All of Crow's work will be in vain if fears of unsustainability become reality by the time the current students are grandparents.
But Redman appears uncomfortable when discussing the projection that millions will move to Arizona in the next 30 years. Some people at the SOS doubt such growth is inevitable, says Redman. He'd only give it a 50-50 chance.
"If the masses come," he says, the new growth should occur under a "different model" with an eye toward long-term sustainability and minimal environmental damage.
While Redman denies that he believes in the burned-out future described by some writers, neither he nor current SOS Dean Christopher Boone have denounced the idea publicly. He says he's well aware that many people in Arizona and elsewhere believe a drought apocalypse is just a matter of time for Phoenix, and he admits that Ross' 2011 book leads readers in an inaccurate "direction."
Yet Redman participated as moderator of a panel for a downtown Phoenix event last year that helped Ross sell his book, and during his interview with New Times last month, Redman had Ross' Bird on Fire in a small stack of books on his desk. Boone refused to comment about his stance on whether Phoenix is sustainable. Crow didn't respond to a request for comment.
Maybe they're worried that Phoenix is unsustainable but don't want to voice their concerns. Or maybe the myth of Phoenix's impending death is a handy tool in pulling in students from outside Arizona to the ASU School of Sustainability.
If climate change affects future weather, as some scientists say it will, Phoenix could end up hitting the sustainability jackpot. Instead of Phoenicians fleeing to water, as they do in Powell's bleak vision, water could come to them.
A map published in National Geographic in November shows how coastlines around the world would change if world glaciers and polar ice caps melted. Cities including New York, Boston, and Houston would be submerged, as would nearly all of Florida.
The map shows the Pacific Ocean moving eastward, erasing much of Los Angeles and San Diego. Good for Phoenix, though, is how the northern end of the Gulf of California is depicted as moving to a latitude farther north than San Diego's -- well into Arizona. Before this happens, says Richard Williams Jr., a scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts who helped put together the map, seawater would "overrun the Colorado River delta and go inland," where it could be desalinated.
Williams says the "Rising Seas" map projects out "centuries."
More near-term predictions claim that Manhattan, Seattle, Miami, and even inland cities like Sacramento could see large areas inundated with seawater by 2100. Some of their residents would search for real estate here in sunny Phoenix -- just as they have for decades.
By then, of course, Phoenix would've figured out how to live with more people and less water. It wouldn't have irrigated lawns; its residents would pay more for water and would suffer more heat waves.
But it still would be a thriving city.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.