Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated

Categories: Cover Story

nancy_selover.jpg
Ray Stern
Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist, gives good odds for Phoenix's future.
One reason Phoenix is picked on as the city with no future, Grady Gammage Jr. says, is its name.

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
endless cycle.

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.


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31 comments
BigBob
BigBob

The claims may be exaggerated, but that does not mean they are altogether false.  We have the data.  This really isn't that hard to see.  Turn on your evening news and notice how often we post record highs.  Then look up what the historic record highs are for any given date; they're all within the last 10 years.  "We" developed in every direction ten years ago, laying down asphalt and packing as many cookie cutter houses in as we could.  The outlying citrus farms are long gone.  "We" are still on the cookie cutter trend, and building in every direction.  Less and less space for plant life.  If we keep doing the same things, like we are, it can only get worse.       

arizonaeagletarian
arizonaeagletarian

Will people still want to live here when summer high temps routinely hit 130F? That may depend on the prospects for SOLAR energy as well as adequate water supply. Holed up in our homes or schools or offices far more than we do now.

I could have sworn I've seen ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability abbreviated "GIOS", not SOS. Where did Stern get that one?


Only touching on desalination of sea water from the Gulf of California in passing, I wonder how much energy desalination takes. Wouldn't that require an awful lot of electricity? Wouldn't SOLAR be the most logical place to look to develop that energy?


Even granting all of Sterns caveats, it all depends on whether massive numbers of people will still want to live here in a scenario where highs exceed 100F for 9 or 10 months every year.

How well will crops adapt to the higher night and day time temps? Stern says farmers will be able to produce more produce with less water. I'll grant that vision for agricultural technology, but how will trees and crops withstand persistent 130F summer days with lows rarely dipping below 100?.


Water, food supply (which depends on water) and energy -- there are way too many open questions to reasonably be able to say with the certainty that Stern does that Phoenix will still be thriving by 2114.

Stern seems to have set about to debunk doomsday climate scenarios, and may have partially succeeded. But he didn't make a very strong case for a thriving Valley of the Unbearably Intense Sun.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"The campuses' square footage has grown by 26 percent since 2007. All of Crow's work will be in vain if fears of unsustainability become reality by the time the current students are grandparents."

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"Though climate studies do reveal a likelihood of reduced river flows"

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist"

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Funny to hear libertarians who pooh-pooh energy efficient light bulbs champion water-efficient toilets.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"New development would continue." This is the politics of this article.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"A few more degrees won't matter" -- it will if you're farming/gardening.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

I like how the sentence ""worst-case scenarios are not likely" can exist in the same year we crashed heat records in the summer and in the winter.

Krazy Bill
Krazy Bill

i had expected better from the New Times.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Also, MAG? Really? That's your expert? They never met a freeway they didn't love...

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Developers: please keep coming here so we can keep selling you property!

Krazy Bill
Krazy Bill

i read this tonight; boosterism, that's all it is.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Damn, I enjoyed that 82 degrees yesterday. Did you?

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

News Editors; 

Get up to date:

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

 *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.

 *Obama had not mentioned the crisis in two State of the Unions addresses. 

I believe history will look back upon this Reefer Madness of climate blame as a pure war crime and child abuse for goose stepping billions of innocent children to the greenhouse gas ovens of a knowingly exaggerated climate crisis. Not one scientist EVER said it will be "unavoidable" like they say comet hits are and almost all of their research was into effects not causes of an assumed to be real crisis. Maybe the real crime was those of us who chose to work so hard to believe in this misery and issue our own children CO2 death threats to a crisis we believed at the grunt of a headline. How can history not brand us all as end of the world freaks? Hopefully those of us who helped perpetrate 30 years of needless CO2 panic (news editors) will have the legacy of their grandkids explaining to their kids how they were all condemned so easily and with such sickening childish glee.

Science could end this debate instantly just by agreeing one way or the other from their consensus of just "could be" a cataclysmic climate crisis because there is no such thing as a little tiny catastrophic climate crisis so it's a yes or a no; Is a climate crisis from Human CO2 inevitable instead of just probable after 30 years of research?


fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@BigBob   Big Boob  "We have the data"  --- fucking moron, who has the data?  You and Al Gore?  Temperature records have been kept for the last 130 years.  Temperatures on earth have been going up and down for the last 4 1/2 billion years.  Fucking illiterate hoser.  

gmanator31
gmanator31

It could be worse. You could be holed up in your little cubby hole called a house in cold ass Saint Louis where I live lol! Except here in STL you would be holed up for 6 months, not Phoenix's 3!

Believe me dude, I've lived in both cities, and Phoenix beats STL by an astronomical unit lol!

ray.stern
ray.stern moderator

@arizonaeagletarian Hi, and thanks for writing. As my article suggests, (and state climatologist Selover backs up), the prospect of the sort of heat you're talking about is also quite unlikely. A few degrees hotter, maybe, but not nine months with highs over 100, and not routine 130-degree days. The highest temp ever recorded in Phoenix, 122, was 24 years ago. If Phoenix ever starts having "persistent" 120-degree days, the notion of persistent 130-degree days someday might become believable! Experts told me that climate change would be more like moving Phoenix (average elevation 1,124 feet) to a more southern latitude, not moving it to Death Valley, which is below sea level. One other thing I couldn't squeeze into the article is that a few folks told me that future buildings will be designed to limit the heat-island effect, meaning the nights might be cooler in Phoenix in, say, 20 or 30 years than they are now.


GIOS is the Global Institute. SOS is the School of Sustainability. As in, "All new freshmen take part in Camp SOS, which provides students with an introduction to the School of Sustainability, their major, faculty, staff, and their peers." -- http://schoolofsustainability.asu.edu/undergraduate/sos-camp


Lastly, I did ask experts about whether solar was a good energy source for desalination plants. The answer was "no," because desal apparently takes a lot of continuous energy, which solar doesn't provide. One possibility suggested by a physics professor I know is that solar could pump water to a large reservoir at the top of the hill, and when clouds pass overhead or at night, water would be released and used for hydro-electric power. I suppose that concept could be mated with a desal plant. (I'll be writing about that professor's ideas in a blog post soon...)


Happy holidays, everyone. And stay cool!

gmanator31
gmanator31

I thought it was a rather well informed and researched article! Very entertaining too!

The fact is that he is stating the obvious how it is not very fashionable to not believe in all of the modern climatology hype!

I've done extensive research on this topic and not only do I agree with the author, but I also have been telling people this for years!

Do yourself and most of those that have to listen to you a favor. Please put down the pot and acid for a solid year to get your head straight! Not everything in life is built around left wing dooms day, emo, hipsters saying how righteous (Ironically) that they are!

BigBob
BigBob

@fishingblues @BigBob  It's funny, I actually stated how one could, so to speak, "look up" the aforementioned data.  Either you are too stupid to understand what something that simple means, or you are a pathetic internet troll who tries to politicize everything.  Next time you're at the library trolling on their internet computers ask one of the nice ladies who works there to show you how to look it up.  Or, continue to try to make everything in your life about all the small minded political hot button issues that make you so angry.  Either way you are clearly a pathetic, worthless shit stain of a human being.  I take solace seeing how angry your ignorance makes you.  With ignorance comes anger. 

FRONTERA
FRONTERA

@fishingblues@BigBob yes gore won the 2000 electon ,bush stole it with  republican US SUPREME  COURT . If you don't think this planet is n trouble from unfeatered STATE CAPITALISM (you can suck the KOOKE BROS ) jaPAN  FUKAHIMA ,eat that tuna fishing blues ,radio active in your guts. Let me tell you ,you wallst. CAP.PIG... IM about to put the big bet on ,and go SHORT THE SP500 ,JUST LIKE JOE KENNEDY,BUST TIME HA HA ,GETTIN  HORNEY THINKIN BOUT ALL THE MONEY I GONNA MAKE  WHEN YOUR 401 K GOES BUST....PONZI SCHEME  CNBC..

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

@fishingblues @BigBob fishingblues, your appalling lack civility is exceeded only by your obvious inability to respond in an intelligent and articulate manner.  Fucking asswipe!

royalphoenix
royalphoenix

@ray.stern The US Navy has desalination plants on board their ships. I drank that water for a year. Desalination will be mired in political red tape for decades. peace

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@fishingblues <== the ignorant uneducated retard who doesn't know the difference between believes and beliefs now wants to teach the world everything he knows about science.


ROTFLMAO !!





fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@BigBob @fishingblues Boob - angry?  dumb fuck - I suppose you think I'm a "hater "also.  You sound just like all of the other junior high girls.

If you don't think the crapola being put out as fact, relative to "global warming", isn't political and money motivated, than your big old melon of a head is way up your big old universe of an ass.  

Jazus!  You stupid fucking liberals are gullible.  

fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@1wayfaringpilgrim @fishingblues @BigBob 


Well now fari, I suppose your response and "appalling lack of civility" is exempt from what you claim because, well, it is from you.


I find it difficult to respond in an "intelligent" fashion when the statement "we have the data" was so patently absurd.


Now, prove to the listening audience how "intelligent" you are by explaining exactly where I have been inarticulate.  numbnuts!


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