La Otra Arizona: There Was a Time When Water Ran from Faucets

It’s the proverbial gila monster in the room––that thing that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about. The uncomfortable fact, in plain view: in our lifetime we will see vast water shortages in Arizona. The water is running out. But when exactly will sand flow from the faucet? Nobody can be sure, and many that study the issue have a vested interest in placing the date as far into the future as possible. Complex issues like the unreliability of desert water supplies aren’t a great selling point for real estate, and in a state whose primary industries are tied to constant population growth, common sense is often chided as alarmism.

The general consensus seems to be that after 2025, things are going to begin to get rough. While that date has a far-off, futuristic ring to it, 2025 is only 13 years away. As a recent report from Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy puts it, “Today there are a host of new challenges on the horizon—particularly the horizon after the mid-2020s.” The report, entitled Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona’s Megapolitan Area, continues:

… Climate change may further stress an already stretched water supply. Future variability may outstrip the storage systems built to manage the past. Agriculture may disappear. The return of rapid population growth will likely necessitate dramatic changes in lifestyle, particularly the lifestyle of desert dwellers at the high end of the socioeconomic ladder.

The “Sun Corridor” referred to in the report is the coming amalgamation of the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, expected to connect through three counties and across over 30,000 square miles, forming a megalopolis of nearly eight million people by 2030 and nine million just ten years later in 2040. That’s an 82.5% increase from the 2005 population of the same area, which was then just about five million––scared yet?

While the numbers may be frightening, it doesn’t make much sense to run and hide, to continue to bliss out in our ignorance. Rather, the numbers implore us to get curious––how did we get here? Does the water use in our neighborhoods really reflect our values? Are we content to continue to drive at full speed toward the impending dry desert cliff?

An immensely important exploration of these questions is found in Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, which is something like the Fast Food Nation of the West’s water crisis. It is one of those books that should be on a required reading list for anyone interested in moving here from back east. They would quickly learn some important context regarding the Colorado River, one of the protagonists in the West’s water story:

One could almost say, then, that the history of the Colorado River contains a metaphor for our time. One could say that the age of great expectations was inaugurated at Hoover Dam––a fifty-year flowering of hopes when all things appeared possible. And one could say that, amid the salt-encrusted sands of the river’s dried-up delta, we began to founder on the Era of Limits.

The arrival of that Era should come as a surprise to no one. On a planet containing a closed global ecosystem, nothing can grow forever. All natural systems are interconnected through their uses of cyclical rhythms: expansion and contraction, inhalation and exhalation. Only humans have built a society based on the tenet that constant expansion is absolutely necessary for our species’ survival, and that any movement in the opposite direction implies crisis.

Therefore Arizona once again presents itself as a laboratory, a testing ground for what will later happen worldwide, when the fifty-year flowering of our linear system collides with a definite and circular reality. The hypothesis of infinite richness will eventually come face to face with the laws of scarcity––and we’ll have front row seats.

It isn’t any surprise that the guardians of the status quo would read all of this as fear-mongering. For anyone with a vested interest in our civilization’s current course, it is easier to press the gas pedal ever-harder, rather than pausing to consider other routes. Indeed, you be the judge: the more you find yourself alarmed at this analysis, the more likely that it is that you’re standing too close to the problem to be able to see a possible solution.

We could be scared, yes. Or we could decide that instead of clutching ever-harder onto The Way Things Are, we’ll spend that energy moving towards another possible scenario, one in which a single generation’s flowering of industry and ephemeral profit gives way to a generations-long birthing of a wider understanding of what it means to be human.

The impending water shortage is just another product of Arizona’s powerful Irony Industry, the sector dedicated to manufacturing potent juxtapositions and striking contrasts. In this case: the fastest-growing state in the nation is the state with the fewest water reserves. Creatures made of over 70% h2O have decided to use drinking water to flush their toilets. In one generation a desert civilization will use up aquifers that took eons to form, drop by drop percolating through the alluvial soil.

So yes, by all means please flush your toilet less and harvest the rainwater that runs off your roof. Tear up your lawn and embrace the strange and ancient native plants of our tierra. Learn any one of a dozen small habits that save thousands of gallons a year, but don’t think that these alone will avoid the “dramatic changes in lifestyle” coming to a city near you in the late 2020’s.

Do all those things, yes, but do more––help imagine La Otra Arizona, comprised of a culture that understands scarcity as natural and doesn’t expect the infinite. Otherwise, we’ll be left to tell our grandchildren stories that begin there once was a time when water flowed with the turn of a knob…