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

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.


Arizona water rights

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.

Kathy Jacobs, executive director of the Arizona Water Institute, says that, on paper, Arizona seems to have enough water, but the reality is that many parts of the state are in trouble.

"If you take the total supply and the total demand, the answer is no [there is not a crisis]," she says. "There's no one in the municipal parts of the state turning on the faucet and not getting water. In the rural parts of the state, there are."

Jacobs is talking about towns like Strawberry, Pine, and Payson that run out of water and have to haul it in every year during peak tourist season.

Flagstaff has similar problems — the city is growing, but its groundwater sits underneath almost-impenetrable rock.

Towns along the Verde River, like Cottonwood, are in legal trouble with SRP for drawing water away from the river (which SRP has first right to) through the wells people in rural areas dig to survive on.

And though Phoenix has a sure supply right now (and for the foreseeable future), there are no sure things in the water game.

The Colorado River, the water source for the Central Arizona Project that runs water through 300 miles of canals to Phoenix and Tucson, is in major trouble.

Arizona gets 2.8 million acre-feet — the measurement used for large amounts of water — a year from the river. CAP gets 1.5 million of that.

(To put things in perspective, an acre-foot is 324,851 gallons, and it takes one acre-foot to support two average Phoenix households for a year.)

Each year, the Colorado is expected to supply 16.5 million acre-feet for human use. But, when this allocation was determined almost 100 years ago, the people who calculated the number made a mistake, basing their calculations on a figure much bigger than the amount of water that is in the river on average.

Today, thanks to tree-ring research, we know the river provides only about 13.5 million acre-feet per year on average. And depending how the climate changes in the next few years, that amount could drop.

It's not as if no one saw this coming. Back in 1968, when the feds and state governments were planning the CAP, a legislative report noted the problem: "There is more Colorado River water already committed . . . than will be available from the river."

They went ahead with the project anyway. Whether or not CAP is a good thing is open for debate — but it's a useless debate. The project is done, it was extremely expensive, and it's not going anywhere.

The question has now become, what to do about the fact that in the very near future it might not have a dependable water source.

Forty years after the first report, Arizona hired a consulting firm — Colorado River Water Consultants — to tell it the same thing.

"It has been determined that the base flow used to establish Colorado River allocations was abnormally high," the report confirms.

Where there's too little water for CAP, there's too much for SRP.

It's an environmentally unpopular thing to say, but SRP might someday need a new reservoir. Case in point: With this winter's violent rainstorms and low snow melt, the small reservoirs on the Verde River were quickly overwhelmed and even Roosevelt Lake — our biggest reservoir — is almost full.

There aren't any current plans for a new reservoir, which would likely eat up acres of land in Arizona's already damaged riparian areas, much to the chagrin of environmental groups, but Bruce Hallin, SRP's business development and strategic analysis director, isn't ruling it out totally.

"If we had a larger reserve on the Verde, we would have been able to capture more water. But there are challenges related to environmental issues and public perception," he says. "On the other hand, if we continue to have significant climate change and start seeing more drastic shifts in the water supply when it comes to higher highs and lower lows, that may be an answer we pursue. No one knows for sure."

It's not likely to be easy, if it ever becomes an option at all. Environmental groups don't take well to the destruction of wildlife for a dam that will supply water to only one place. There isn't a great site for a new reservoir and no real way to mitigate the damage to rare desert species.

On top of that, most people who have been in the water business a while remember the PR disasters that were Orme and Cliff dams, two reservoirs proposed for the Verde river in the '70s and '80s, respectively.

Neither was a great proposal — Orme would have flooded most of the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation — and both would have caused significant habitat damage for endangered eagles.

Thanks to modern technology, it's a fight that might never be fought. SRP and the Arizona Department of Water Resources are currently investing in water banking — essentially pumping water back into underground aquifers — as an alternative. Unlike reservoirs, which can lose up to six feet of water a year to evaporation, water stored underground is there until we need it.

But it's a slow process. It has to be done mechanically, methodically. There is no way to capture the extra water from a violent rainstorm. Some might seep into the aquifers on its own, but the rest ends up down in Gila Bend, where farmers have first rights, or as far away as Mexico. (In fact, agriculture currently uses about 70 percent of the state's total water.)

And it takes a while to fill these aquifers, especially because we've been drawing from them for years. Arizona is in its 10th year of water banking and has saved 3 million acre-feet through the process, enough to supply CAP's system with water for just under two years.

All the future plans to augment Arizona's water supply come with caveats — they're controversial, they're slow, and, most of all, they're expensive.

Because no state is going to give up a portion of its allotment without a fight, and taking away Mexico's supply would require an international treaty, some high-tech augmentation methods have been proposed.

Water reuse has been the most popular solution so far. For one thing, we have the resources to do it. For another, using treated wastewater on landscaping and non-edible agriculture leaves more good water for people.

Still, at $1,700 an acre-foot, it isn't exactly a bargain.

Water here is cheap right now. If we want to keep it that way, we'd better conserve, says Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

"The cheapest way to save water is to conserve," he says. "That's why conservation is important. It keeps water rates low."

If we don't conserve what we have, the only option in the future could be throwing millions of dollars into artificial augmentation.

That might be the best water-conservation sell.

No one really wants to turn off the water while lathering up in the shower, or play golf on a Xeriscaped course, so water lags a bit behind the rest of the green movement.

Melanie Ford, who works for the AZDWR as a drought planner, spending her time trying to persuade people to conserve water, has definitely noticed what a tough pitch it is.

"It's hard to get people to change their lifestyle. People don't want to take a shorter shower," she says. "It's easy to drive a Prius, but tearing out your grass that you love is a bigger change than just buying a new car. There's no immediate reward."

Correction (posted April 24, 2008): It should have been reported the Central Arizona Project gets 1.5 million acre-feet a year, and that one acre-foot can support two households for a year. Also, the article should have reported the number of gallons in an acre-foot as 325,851.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >