This goes back a few years now, but I still remember the shock. After a long stint as a resident of the Midwest, I moved to the Phoenix area in the 1990s. Having previously only driven through our 48th state to visit the Grand Canyon, I didn’t know what to expect.
But I knew that Arizona’s capital was situated on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, was populated with more cactus plants than people (so I thought) and received only about 8 inches of rain a year—in a good year. (In contrast, other Sun Belt cities are far wetter—Miami gets 58 inches of precipitation a year, Atlanta gets 50 inches and even Dallas gets 34 inches of rain annually).
Imagine my surprise, then, when I drove through my new neighborhood in Tempe just south of Phoenix and saw green lawns, shade trees and lots and lots of flowers and shrubbery surrounding the houses, apartments and commercial buildings. Of course, all this greenery was being watered relentlessly against the 100-degree heat, with just about every piece of property seemingly hooked up to automatic sprinkler systems that most mornings would collectively drown out the traffic noise.
I had to ask: Why is everyone watering their lawns and landscaping? I thought this was a desert. Where’s the water coming from?
The short answer was that years ago, much of the valley where Greater Phoenix now sprawls—and I mean sprawls; the municipal area encompasses more than 16,000 square miles—used to be planted in citrus and cotton. Both of those crops, obviously, require immense amounts of irrigation, which was sourced primarily from underground wells and municipal systems that pulled water from nearby rivers originating in the state’s more mountainous central and northern regions. When the Central Arizona Project, a massive pipeline that diverted water from the Colorado River, finally reached Phoenix in the 1980s, it coincided with a massive influx of people and the subsequent transformation of what used to be farm fields into endless red tile-roofed, stucco-sided housing developments.
Those houses, and the tens of thousands of new arrivals living in them, actually use a lot less water per acre than cotton plants, and by the 1990s, Phoenix allowed residents to plant trees, grow gardens and put in luxurious green lawns that looked like they were imported from a Chicago suburb. Who cares? There’s plenty of water!
Only there isn’t.
Runnin’ on empty
As the ironically named author Jonathan Waterman documents in his book, “Running Dry,” the Colorado River no longer flows all the way to the ocean, where it formerly emptied into the Gulf of California separating Baja California from the Mexican mainland. Instead, once-mighty waterway ends in a desolate series of stagnant pools, dusty bottomland and dried-up delta marshes. Thanks to irrigation projects and municipal water diversions, there’s hardly any volume of water left when the Colorado completes its 1,500-mile journey from the Rockies to the sea.