Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Exaggerated

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The most disturbing thing about all these predictions is that a vast number of people believe them — even though they're full of hot air.

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.