Longform

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.

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.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin