Longform

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

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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.

And there's no question that desire to live in metro Phoenix still burgeons.


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 — seven 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 Verde watersheds.

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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.