I love the feast or famine character of the desert—it can be a very dramatic place to live. However, climate change is increasing the severity of weather events and altering longer-term weather cycles. As Craig Childs famously said, “There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning”. As a long-time Sonoran Desert resident, I know this for a fact. Every year a couple of folks either die or need rescuing because they think it’s a good idea to hike in 105 degree heat. And this crazy Pacific hurricane season has kept our summer monsoon going well into October, resulting in a very happy desert, but unfortunately two Tucsonan’s have drowned, swept away in their cars trying to cross flooded washes. I’m seeing landscapes transforming in southeastern Arizona’s sky island mountains due to drought-induced, unprecedented, massive fires followed by torrential rains that clog streambeds, smother springs, and impact habitats. These changes are certainly not restricted to my backyard, but they are hitting the entire Colorado River Basin hard.
My favorite place in the West is the spectacular canyon lands of southern Utah, especially the Escalante. I have come to expect unpredictable weather, and my trip there this year was no exception. During two days of heavy downpours, tourists were swept away and nearly drowned when a bridge over the Paria, a Colorado River tributary, collapsed beneath them. These impressive floods cannot, however stop the continuing declines in Colorado River flows and dropping water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead, where we saw first-hand the impact of years of low snowpack and little precipitation. Levels in Mead are at an historic low. Las Vegas is rushing to finish a new intake to take water from a lower water elevation, and marinas continue to locate further downhill.
So, how do we meet our ever increasing thirst for water in the desert and adapt to this new “normal” of extreme weather events? In Arizona, we work directly with communities near two desert rivers, the San Pedro and Verde, to build water supply resiliency and reduce the groundwater pumping which impacts river flows. We do this by promoting planning, rainwater harvesting, and Low Impact Development to maximize storm water use and water conservation to stretch existing water supplies. To support these efforts we produced “Case for Conservation” factsheets to show that conservation programs are much more cost-effective than new supply development.
Of course, we as individuals can have a collective impact by being conscious of our own water use, replacing inefficient fixtures, capturing and using rainwater (where legal), and advocating for conservation policies, programs and ordinances that will stretch our existing water supplies in our communities and states.
An opportunity for Arizonans to weigh in on how Arizona should best meet its future water needs is through the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Their Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability was released earlier this year, and facilitated discussions are planned for the fall. While the plan proposes some positive actions such as exploration of direct potable reuse of reclaimed water, it neglects to propose a serious discussion of innovative conservation options. Also lacking is any discussion of water for the environment, critical to Arizona’s quality of life and economy.
Western Resource Advocates is working over the next year to convince the Arizona Department of Water Resources and diverse water interests of the benefits of prioritizing water conservation and reuse for our economy, environment and long-term quality of life.
To share your comments on water conservation needs in Arizona, contact Public Information Officer, Michelle Moreno.
Arizona Department of Water Resources
3550 North Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85012