Water Security In Phoenix

The city of Phoenix has been growing 11.2 percent annually over the last decade dubbing itself “the largest growing big city”. While growth has been a cornerstone in allowing the valley’s communities and economy to grow, a familiar problem the state has always faced has become more and more prevalent. The issue is water security. The Sonoran desert experiences extremely low rainfall annually and conditions created by climate change have left the desert city in a decades-long drought that has caused many lawmakers and municipalities to begin raising awareness to the potential water insecurity that lies ahead. These issues, however serious, are not entirely new. Life in the desert has been ever expanding since colonizers first settled in the valley hundreds of years ago and as a result the communities have always struggled to find new ways to bring water to municipalities for public and private use. Historically this has been done by diverting water from not-so-nearby rivers using complicated networks of dams, reservoirs and aquifers. Today almost all of Phoenix’s municipal and agriculture water use are supported by two main water infrastructure projects. The two projects are called The Salt River Project (SRP) and The Central Arizona Project (CAP). The former is a project that diverts water from the Salt River and primarily serves the valley’s domestic water supply. The Latter is a series of aquifers that divert water from the Colorado river into the Phoenix metropolitan area for the purpose of agricultural use. While these projects have been able to provide water security for Phoenix over the last few decades growing drought as a result of climate change has left many of the reservoirs and aqueducts these projects draw from to reach all time lows leaving communities and law makers scrabbling to come up with a solution to the impending water shortage.

Key Issues:

Climate conditions in the Sonoran desert and other parts of the south west, largely in part due to climate change, have left the valley in a decades long drought. With extreme drought conditions rising to over 80% for Maricopa county in recent years. Phoenix municipality has only been receiving about 9 inches of rainfall a year, a number that peaked at almost 30 inches not so long ago. Rainfall in the surrounding areas are also experiencing decreased annual rainfall and snowfall over the past few decades. This is a serious problem for water supply in Phoenix because many of the rivers that are diverted miles to Phoenix rely heavily on snowmelt runoff from nearby mountain ranges to maintain high water levels and steady flow. Drought isn’t the only issue that the Phoenix metropolitan area is facing, growth is another key factor presenting a threat to water security for Phoenix’s future. In the last ten years Phoenix population has increased by over 250,000 residents, one of the highest growth increases in the country, and with new communities popping up on the outskirts of the city like wildfire water use in the valley has been increasing at an exponential rate. With all these new members of the community come thousands of people who require and deserve access to a clean water supply to support themselves. This is a tall order for a region that’s already limited water supply is being threatened by drought. Finally I think it’s important to note human perception and ideology of what life in the desert is supposed to look like plays a vital role in Phoenix’s water security issues today. Many believe that the city and its surrounding areas should look like a lush oasis in the desert with large stretches of green grass for parks, front yards, and golf courses and man-made lakes, rivers and water features carefully placed to create a utopia smack dab in the center of one of the most arid regions in the country. This type of thinking requires that huge amounts of water be transported from already dry environments to support this type of lifestyle, water that the ecosystem just can’t provide.

Lessons Learned:

One of the main findings of my research was that water security issues in Arizona are not new. Since the beginning of time native Americans, and the settlers that came hundreds of years later all dealt with the same issue, there is simply not enough water in most parts of the Sonoran desert to support human life. In the early days this meant that communities were required to settle near already naturally flowing water. As growth occurred and population numbers began to rise it was vital that in order to support the new residents water must be brought in from other regions that had an excess water supply to make up for the lack of water in the valley. This process of diverting water from other sources continued growing in larger scales to accommodate the fast growing population in the Phoenix area, a process that has resulted in the over consumption of water rand ultimately water insecurity. I think the solution to this will ultimately be what it has always been, improving technology so that we can continue to bend nature to suit our needs. For as long as life in the desert has been happening this has meant diverting water from elsewhere, but now that we are running out of water to divert I think it is vital we switch our efforts to focusing on making this process more efficient. Thousands of gallons of water are lost each year to evaporation while traveling through aqueducts across the southwest and even more is lost through lack of grey water treatment and practices like flooding irrigation used to water plants. Efforts to reclaim water security for Phoenix cannot only come from new technologies however, it is also equally, maybe even more important that the humans that inhabit the valley learn the importance of being efficient with their water usage as well as state and municipal governments so that the water that is currently available to them will last much longer. This change in ideology will require that businesses and residents get educated on water usage and what potential overuse looks like as well as making cutbacks on when and how water is used to better insure water security for the future.

Connections with Environmental Justice Principles:

Water security for Phoenix in general, is a very complex topic and consequently can be applied to most all aspects of environmental justice. One key principle, however, is “community identity and ways of knowing”. This principle addresses how human understanding and means of activity affect the environment around them in both physically and socially. I think this relates to water security in Phoenix because it illustrates how growth/development and our ideology of what it means and how to live in the desert has led us to experience some of the hardships we are enduring today. The valley’s insatiable appetite for green lawns and tall palm trees in every front yard is a key contributor to the lack of available water in the city as desires like this require thousands of gallons of water a year achieve and the processes by which humans have gone about achieving this (in most cases using potable drinking water to water plants) have played an equally destructive role. Another environmental justice principle that I believe relates to this topic is “global to local impacts/impacts over time”. This principle relates to Phoenix’s water security issues in multiple ways. One is through climate change and global warming. While Phoenix undoubtedly contributes to the effects of climate change, the city is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the amount of pollution generated by the rest of the world. Climate change has dramatically impacted weather conditions in almost every region in the world. Unfortunately for Phoenix this change in temperature has had a devastating impact on the city’s water supply and there is next to nothing that could be done on the local scale to prevent that. This principle is also addressed when looking at Arizona’s historic battle to secure water rights for its cities by obtaining water from outside sources. We, as a state, have never really had enough water to support ourselves to begin with. In addition to this our continued practice of misuse and inefficient use of available water supply as well as our history of trading water rights for financial or political gain has also contributed to the issues we see today. The problems facing Phoenix’s municipal area are not going away. Climate change is here to stay and more people are migrating from other states than ever and appear to be here to stay. If “business as usual” continues as it has, only one thing is certain. The city of Phoenix will run out of water unless incredible advances in water technologies are made and even then we will only be delaying the inevitable unless social change is made.

Works Cited:

Best Places. Climate in Phoenix, Arizona, https://www.bestplaces.net/climate/city/arizona/phoenix.

Lasley, Ben. “Oasis Cityscape or Drought Ridden Desert; Phoenix, AZ Battle Against Water Assurance.” 20 Oct. 2021.

Pacini, Bernardo, and Lorenzo Puliti. “Best Things to Do in Phoenix: Attractions, Museums, Day Trips and Tours.” Travel in USA, 21 Oct. 2021, https://www.travelinusa.us/things-to-do-in-phoenix/.

Robbins, Melissa. “Arizona out of 10-Year Drought Period Thanks to Wet May.” Arizona Daily Star, 11 July 2019, https://tucson.com/news/local/arizona-out-of-10-year-drought-period-thanks-to-wet-may/article_dae487cc-4ea3-5ef8-ab9b-a6df9e86a119.html.




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Ben Lasley

Ben Lasley

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