Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated
One reason Phoenix is picked on as the city with no future, Grady Gammage Jr. says, is its name.
Ray Stern Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist, gives good odds for Phoenix's future.
Either Swilling or another pioneer, Darrell Duppa, both educated in the classics, came up with the moniker to represent the new settlement's rebirth from the old Hohokam town. The English word comes from the similar-sounding term used by the ancient Greeks to describe the myth of the Phoenix bird, which dies before it's reborn from its ashes in an
Nothing about modern civilization truly is sustainable -- 7 billion people on Earth trying to achieve a First World standard of living isn't sustainable. Phoenix and other modern cities will end at some point, everyone should agree. Climate change, war, and/or other human-caused environmental problems may hasten the end.
But modern Phoenix is maturing from its recent rebirth, not dying.
"The question is how we respond to challenges," Gammage says. "It's not like we're going to dry up and blow away anytime soon."
Marshall Vest, director of the U of A Economic and Business Research Center, says he's heard concerns for 40 years that Phoenix will run out of water, is getting hotter, and generally is damned. And, all the while, the masses have poured in.
The migratory flow of Americans has followed consistent patterns for decades from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt, and it won't change soon, even if average temperatures increase, he says.
Yes, overnight lows in the Phoenix area have risen dramatically since 1990, by 10 to 15 degrees. The "heat-island effect" of concrete and asphalt trapping solar radiation has made some summer nights here more miserable than they used to be, and it's expected to get worse. But, over the past 23 years, the Valley's population nearly has doubled.
That is, extreme heat doesn't keep people away.
Arizona's population is about 6.5 million, Vest says, and that's projected to rise to about 10 million in the next 30 years. The possibility of severe negative effects from climate change or other calamities isn't factored into the equation, he acknowledges.
The Maricopa Association of Governments also doesn't take into account the possibility of horrendous environmental changes in population projections it's required by law to prepare for the Governor's Office. That's because dramatic changes aren't considered probable in the 30-year time frame considered by planners, says Anubhav Bagley, a MAG statistics and information manager.
The official projections use the best information from state water and climate experts who try to be realistic about potential problems, Bagley says. Based on available data, MAG believes the county will have 6.2 million residents by 2040.
Bagley is impressed by the region's potential for growth, even in bad times. Maricopa County grew by 745,000 people -- a 24 percent increase -- from 2000 to 2010, a period that includes the economic downturn, he says. Census data shows the county grew by at least a few thousand people in its darkest modern years, from 2008 to 2010.
Smart water management has been key to past growth, and the area will have to be even smarter in the future.
Water managers, regional and city planners, politicians, and activists have struggled for years to build the infrastructure and analyze the complex legal negotiations over water rights that make the average resident's eyeballs glaze over. And average residents, so far, have had nothing to worry about. Water's relatively cheap, its quality's good, and it almost never fails to come out of the faucet.
In the early 20th century, following Swilling's visionary lead, the Phoenix community formed the organization that would evolve into Salt River Project, which manages the Salt and Gila watersheds.
With the feds' help, Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911. Other dams tamed the wild rivers and formed immense reservoirs in ways that Native Americans couldn't. The Hohokam canals, built along stunningly precise grades, were cleared and modernized with concrete. In 1980, a crisis of pumping too much groundwater was averted with a new law that requires "water banking" back into aquifers. Then came the Central Arizona Project canal, which Congress authorized in 1969 and now provides water to about 40 percent of the state's population.
New development in the state must prove that it has a 100-year water supply before it can be authorized, a standard not required in other states with potential water-shortage problems.
No one can predict the future with certainty, of course. Maybe it never will rain again in Phoenix. However, worst-case scenarios are not likely.
Climate change will be felt gradually, experts say. It may grow hotter over time, but it's already hot here, and a few more degrees won't matter. A dramatic end to rain, snow, and river flow, like the shutting off of a spigot, isn't a realistic prediction.
The worst 14-year period of drought in the past 100 years is taking place now, and scientists predict further reductions in the flows of the Colorado, Salt, Verde, and Gila rivers in the next few years. Releases of Colorado River water from Lake Powell will drop next year to their lowest level since the lake was filled in the 1960s. Yet, officials say, even if poor snowpack persists for another two years and a shortage is declared in 2016, resulting in fewer allocations for farms and underground aquifers, Valley residents would keep receiving their full share of CAP canal water. New development would continue.
"We're still growing into our water supplies," asserts Dave Roberts, executive manager for SRP's water-rights and contracts department. "Phoenix is among the most sustainable" among Southwest cities because of advance planning and conservation efforts.
The underground water-banking program has stored nearly two trillion gallons of water that can help the area get through extreme dry periods of little surface water, if it comes to that, Roberts says.
Meanwhile, per-capita water usage by Valley residents has decreased at least 20 percent since 1990 because of public awareness and such technology as water-efficient toilets.
The bottom line is that experts, like those at SRP, feel confident that water supplies for the Phoenix area will be sufficient to maintain the growth that fuels our economy for the next several decades. Regional water problems are expected during this time, because high-growth areas, including those in the East Valley's Superstition Vistas area, aren't "blessed with an abundant water supply," Roberts says. "Buckeye, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, Goodyear are where we are going to have to get creative."
After this time, as even more new residents arrive, estimated water supplies won't meet
the expected demand, especially those from the Central Arizona Project canal. Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, says state planners are working to address the future "imbalance" predicted for 50 to 100 years from now.
"You're not going to get to a point where you just run out of water because you can't grow beyond what you have," she says, referring to the state's 100-year supply requirement for development. "There could be a drought that disrupts the supply. That's when you go to your other water supplies. Unlike Las Vegas, we're redundant."
With the double-edged sword of increasing demand and dwindling supply, however, eventually Phoenix and the rest of the state will need more options.
"Ocean desalination is the next supply," Roberts says. "The technology is there."
One likely spot for a large-scale desalination plant is at the northern end of the Gulf of California, in Mexico, which isn't lined by million-dollar homes (like Southern California) and is relatively close to Phoenix.
Water could be piped in from there or traded with Mexico for part of its share of Colorado River water, experts say. The project, considered in some form since the 1960s, would need to involve an expensive energy source to power it -- maybe nuclear -- because desalination needs continuous, reliable electricity to function.
With a higher projected population at that time for Arizona and the six other Western states expected to join in on such a project, it would be easier to fund the expected $10 billion cost (based on today's currency value), Roberts says.
Mexico is interested in the plan because the northern state of Sonora, with about 2.5 million people, desperately needs more water for its growing population.