Thursday, December 10, 2009

Water and My Neighbor, Jerry

Water has many uses…the primary one could be reuse.

My neighbor, Jerry, had placed a 5 gallon bucket under a leaky rain gutter. He didn’t want drips to stain his wood deck. The pail was full and, instead of throwing it over the 4 ½ ft. railing, it was simpler to walk 20 feet and pour it into a planter at the front of his house.

If anything, Jerry’s practical. All of which brings me to the point – water reuse. It sounds simple. In the initial stages of the process, it is.

Jerry could just as easily have tossed snow from his sidewalk into the planter or, local laws permitting, re-directed water from his shower drain to another planter in his yard… Greywater, as it’s called, distinct from water from sanitary lines, can be used in innumerable ways from the garden to washing a car.

According to Arizona guidelines, greywater may be obtained from a clothes washer, bathtub, shower or sink, but not from a kitchen sink, dishwasher or toilet.

A brochure titled, “Using Greywater at Home” outlines many uses and procedures and may be obtained from

Although not codified into law, the guidelines carry a valuable list of do’s and don’ts when working with secondary water sources including where and when it can be used safely. You can’t take water from your toilet and throw it outside nor do you want to use it on certain plants.

But, it’s inexpensive…and because you’ve already paid for it, you might as well use it again.

Writing in the Santa Barbara (California) Independent, Ben Preston, staff reporter, points out, “It also requires that homeowners, if they weren't already doing so, use biodegradable laundry soap, as traditional soaps would harm the plants. ‘As long as you're using the right products, greywater irrigation makes a lot of sense,’” says Laura Allen, Oakland, California, and a member of California-based Greywater Action. “She has been using greywater on her kiwi and apricot trees and berry bushes for a decade,” reports the Santa Barbara Independent.

Preston continues, “Already in place in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Nevada and other Western states, standards spelling out how best to use water were also passed by the California Building Standards Commission on Aug. 4…”

I’ll order a brochure for Jerry. He really doesn’t have enough to do in his retirement with several antique cars and a business.

Me?...I’ve got no yard.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Heretical Questions of Water Use in the Southwest

Laws governing water use have evolved from a way of life that has all but disappeared in Arizona.  The current tangle of regulations, developed haphazardly over time (but earnestly enough at the time) is enough to keep attorneys busy for decades.

Agricultural interests, metropolitan interests, and mining/industrial interests are figuratively coming to blows with the intimation that the end of an unlimited water supply may be in sight.

People are beginning to realize, at least speculatively, that business as usual is about to end and water use will most likely have to be regulated, allocated or governed in some way.  Regulation and allocation are bitter concepts in a largely conservative state.

Let’s look at some issues and questions…

Should water be privately owned and should ownership be couched in terms of “rights” by special interest groups or corporate entities?  Stated differently, is water a public commodity to be held in trust by the state and dispensed equitably for the common good – or – is it owned, as is a mineral deposit, and mined for personal gain? 

Should water, controlled by public-private partnerships (PPPs), make profits by delivering water to the very people who may own it in the first place?

Should water be delivered by a public utility which would allow suppliers minimal profits to cover current costs and future investment?

Should water utilities be governed by a Public Utilities Commission that sets rates for consumers?  And profit levels for suppliers?

Is it necessary to grow cotton on thousands of acres of desert land that wouldn’t otherwise support this crop without irrigation? 

Would the irrigation used to supply plants be better spent in the Southwest by supplying people?  Not a foolish question.  Looked at differently, if you were packing in the back country with a few liters of water would you consume the limited water you had or would you feed the nearest mesquite tree? 

To continue this ridiculous analogy -- am I stealing water from the Salt River Project (SRP), for instance, if I filter a liter from the Verde River (or the Gila River, or Colorado River) and don’t replace it.

See also:


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Looking Out My Back Door

With apologies to CCR…

Currently there is talk in Arizona about sustained safe-use of water resources. Proposals are offered, solutions returned.  Most are merely hopeful, some just ridiculous.

If you want to know what the desert will naturally support, just look out your back door.  For a personal experience, pack into a wilderness area. Sycamore and Loy canyons are close. Legs of your trip will have to be planned carefully between springs, stock tanks, water holes. 

The desert doesn’t support an abundance of wildlife (human or otherwise) and the density of animal populations is typically low. In Arizona, for example, density of the deer population is estimated at 10 per sq. mi. -- in the most favorable habitat -- while in Wisconsin that number ranges from a high of 100 per sq mi. to an average for the state of 25 – 35 per sq. mi. 

Vegetation is scattered, also.  Monocultures such as lawns, vineyards and cotton farms don’t exist naturally because the water necessary to support them doesn’t exist.

Running counter to the scaled-back density of animals and vegetation, human population in Arizona has increased approximately 26% in the last in the last eight years.

The desert will not naturally support megaplexes like Phoenix or Tuscan with their monocultures of people. It is not an Iowa cornfield.

When we talk about pumping aquifers, constructing diversion dams and establishing reservoirs to support non-native agriculture and an overgrown population, it’s a conversation about debt…water debt.

Two water resources are particularly misleading:
1. Reservoirs, scattered about Arizona, look like lakes but are nothing but rivers with an enlarged surface area (and greater than normal evaporation) and. . .
2. Aquifers, being hidden, are only remotely connected to people’s awareness.

The perfect storm? . . .maybe it’s your choice. . . pump the rivers and aquifers and. . .take your chances.

For more on this subject please see

Friday, August 21, 2009

When the River Becomes a Swamp -- Part 2

Idyllic, isn't it?

The Verde River is high...ducks, blue herons, kingfishers and other wildlife "use" its braided path all the way to the Salt River far to the South.  

People. . . also. . .use the river and that's where trouble begins. Some use it for pleasure, others for commerce.  Some more wisely than others.

One of the more perceptive observers is Doug Von Gausig, the mayor of Clarkdale, Arizona.  Maybe a birder, he's certainly observant. Von Gausig has seen 175 species of birds on his property in the 7 years he’s been here.

Talking to "High Country News" in 2007, Von Gausig said, "...the Verde is more than bird habitat. The river is a touchstone for people who live near it...a place to spend time in, something beautiful, something that brings peace to their lives. (High Country News, "Battle for the Verde", May 14, 2007).

Today that sentiment may no longer be viable.  The river has changed.

Writing in the August 2009 Issue of The Noise, a monthly entertainment tabloid published in northern Arizona, Ellen Jo Roberts laments her aborted rafting trip on the Verde: "It's not an easy river"..."We never made it to (our destination)"..."Our plan was foiled by one portage too many...leaving us all sliced up with green reeds and weeds as sharp as paper cuts."

She explains, "...the river wasn't moving get anywhere we had to vigorously kick...or risk circling in the same spot all day."

Although it likely wasn't within the article's scope, she fails to pose a simple question, "Why...?, Why doesn't  the river flow?"  That's what rivers do.

The answer lies with commercial interests and the fact that no consideration of the Verde River is complete without mention of diversion dams and the dams' affect on the environmental qualities of the river.

Questions are are complex and tangled in antiquated Arizona water laws.

Let's try the easy way . . .
  • Diversion dams serve agricultural interests.  With limited supplies of water in Arizona, why are some land owners determined to grow what the environment won't support naturally?
  • If commercial interests are at stake, what ethic permits these interests to take primacy over personal enjoyment?
  • If water ownership is primal, does that owner have the right to take water until the very river is destroyed?
  • Do water rights effectively mean river ownership?
High above the Verde River are the remains of the Anasazi dwelling, Tuzigoot.  Inhabited from about 1125 - 1400 AD, these ancients knew enough, even with water control structures of their own, not to destroy the river.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When the River Becomes a Swamp -- Part 1

Guide books refer to the Verde River as one of the last free flowing, perennial streams in Arizona.

Maybe it was free flowing years ago, but not today.

There are many causes--drought, lack of snow pack, depleted aquifer--but foremost is the Cottonwood Ditch Association in Cottonwood, Arizona.

The Cottonwood Ditch Association (CDA) constructs "diversion" dams across the river, channeling the river's flow into irrigation ditches that serve the interests of a few hay and alfalfa farmers...local suppliers to cattle ranchers and horsemen. Often these groups are one and the same.

The one who manages these operations is Andy Groseta, President of the CDA, on one hand, and chairman of the National Cattlemens Beef Association Policy Division, on the other.

While visibility of this issue has been minimal and controversy nonexistent, it has raised interest (and possibly the hackles) of at least one adjoining community.

Speaking to City Council on June 12, 2007, Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig remarked, "...I think it's important to know what's going on with this issue. I met with Andy Groseta, ditch boss of the Cottonwood Ditch Association. This summer the

Cottonwood Ditch is again diverting 100% of the Verde River into their ditch, allowing only a trickle to bypass the diversion. This is a terrible thing for the river's habitat. It means that the river is no longer a viable corridor for transportation and migration of aquatic animals - the diversion becomes, in essence, an unnatural barrier to movements in the river."

That was June, 2007.

Fast forward to August, 2009...and...nothing has changed. On my last trip to the Verde the flow of the river was virtually stopped and, again, 100% of the flow was diverted to the ditch system.

The effect on the river has been dramatic: the river had been changed to a slough, the flow was nonexistent, willow variants had

grown 15 ft high and 20 ft out from the banks, cattails were growing mid-stream and thick clumps of algae had formed in open areas.
Coming from the Midwest, adjacent to lakes Michigan and Erie, it's hard to imagine that one man/organization can control what is ostensibly a public body of water.

The irony in this case is that he's working at cross purposes with the City of Cottonwood (where he lives) and is at odds with the interests he represents. The river, as he knows it, will likely disappear depriving him of his irrigation source.

Additionally, in May of this year, the city paid a consulting firm, ESI Corp., to come up with a Strategic Economic Development Plan, Focus on Success.

The Plan cited the Verde River as one of the assets the town ought to promote:
"The first strategy is to develop river access points and multi-use trails leading from Old Town and other areas in town to the river. This will increase connectivity between the river and amenities in Old Town Cottonwood, and will thus encourage additional tourists to visit one of the main attractions in the City: the Verde River."


What happens when the River becomes a swamp?
What happens when that swamp serves as a breeding ground for mosquitos?
What happens when tourists carry home various illnesses as souveniers of their trip?
What happens when the river will no longer supply the irrigation interests of a few land owners?

Andy Groseta and the Cottonwood Ditch Association is working counter to its own interests. They will find this out when the River has chosen some new options or has found another way around the Ditch Association.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Where's My Water?

This small trickle of water is a good sign in Jerome, Arizona. It signifies that the water storage tanks in this small town (pop. 350) are full and what you are seeing is the overflow as it trickles down Mingus Mountain on it's way to the Verde River.

The good news is that water has finally become an issue in Arizona...the bad news is that people are still playing games and show no inclination to stop.

The town of Prescott i
s struggling with how much water it will take from the Big Chino aquifer...the city of Phoenix is haggling with its internal political interests about water usage and where the whole issue is going.

Into this confused controversy steps a well meaning reporter, Phil Wright of the Verde Independent and its on-line iteration, the, an impetuous Jerome Town Clerk/acting Town Manager, Terez Storm, and the possibility that a water shortage could exist some day in Jerome.

Alarmed at this prospect, Ms. Storm (acting alone as far as anyone knows) declared a water emergency and left town for a month's vacation. Reacting to pressure from the Town's administrators, the verdenews,com "disappeared" the piece from its article list (but not its archives). And Ms. Storm? She has been replaced as acting Town Manager and Town Clerk.

But...we digress...the point is water...isn't it?

While this small trickle of water is reassuring to the present population, it represents the excess between what is used now by 350 people and what once served a population 40-times as large...15,000 mine workers, mine executives, merchants, bar owners and prostitutes.

If you ask a couple of old-timers around here about the difference between now and the olden days, their thoughts are about the same.
"Well," they say, "people lived differently."
"People didn't have flush toilets then and they took baths maybe once a week out of a bucket..."
"Y'have to remember," they'll say, "we used to get a big snow pack on Mingus Mountain and now it's nowhere near the size."

No wonder the bars flourished...keg beer or was probably cleaner than the water.

It's kinda alarming, however, that 350 people are using water at substantially the same rate as 15,000 people did 60 - 90 years ago.

For comfort my thoughts keep returning to Terez Storm who issued an "unauthorized" alarm, my neighbors who grow gardens of non-native desert species and water lawns for 6 - 8 hrs a night, another neighbor who has a 700-plant vineyard, and a city administration that just doesn't get it.

When they turn the tap and the faucet is dry, the causes of global warming will pale in the light of returning to sponge baths from buckets. An old adage states that all politics is local...all I'd add is that a lot depends on how hot and dry it gets.

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bubble Gum Cacti of the Desert Garden

I don't know why I dislike them. . .maybe because they represent a willful altering of something naturally beautiful to obtain something personally attractive. I'm referring to hybrid cacti grown from nursery stock that has been twizzled with the soft bristles of a paintbrush loaded with pollen from another genetic variety or species.

This creative endeavor seldom produces a fruit with viable seeds (or any fruit at all), the plants are less resistant to disease and insects, and they are less hardy in a desert or high desert environment.

I guess all this is OK so long as the "varieties" don't mix with the native chollas, barrel, prickly pear, and hedgehog varieties that thrive in the arroyos, washes, and cuts in this arid region.

Apparently they don't intermix, so-o-o no harm, no foul...but the foolishness goes on.

Silly Latin names are made up, attempts made to persuade the Department of Agriculture to recognize a "new" species, and the nurseries that propagate them continue to tell people, "That one? It's called an Amazon Giant (top left)...comes from South America."

Fortunately, at least in Arizona, a hard-to-get state permit is required to dig up or possess a native species. It ensures that native cacti in this high desert will continue to exist and remind us when they bloom that there is a wisdom lurking in the mix of spines and flowers

It's always a delight when we're on an evening walk to keep an eye out for a particular cactus species that should be blooming.

It's even more fun in the backcountry to scramble over the rocks and hills and find among the mesquite, juniper and manzanita that single cactus flower that makes a perfect picture.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flower Photo Technics

I've been asked several times how to create the dark background behind many of the desert flower pics I take and my usual answer is, "It depends."

It depends on the time of day, it depends on your camera settings and, ultimately, it depends on your camera and the adjustments it will allow. The key to getting these results is the use of spot metering as opposed to metering in wide area mode.

The simplest solution is illustrated by the photo of the Palmer penstemon (top left). Flash is used on a camera with through-the-lense (TTL) metering. Spot exposure aimed at the bright flower will produce a sharp subject against an unlit background.

Another technique is equally simple. Again using spot metering, focus on the brightest part of a white, or very bright, element of the flower. If your camera offers the feature, partially depress the shutter release button to hold the exposure and focus while you better frame the subject. Auto exposure will close down the aperture (and speed up the shutter) so that a darker background will result in a high-contrast picture. The prickle poppy (middle left) jumps out of its background with no distracting elements.

It's always fun to experiment and see what you get. Digital cameras give you the freedom to produce nearly any effect you want and also the pitfalls that go with it. In this case, the danger is in the tendency for all your flower photos to have a guidebook quality...good only in moderation.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

It Always Fascinates Me . . .

. . . how plants maintain their niche in the desert environment by evolving to accept only certain pollinators and then only at particular times of the year. Bees, birds, bats and nearly everything small and mobile in the desert play a part in this ongoing drama.

The first hints come when you approach a flower and see that nearly always there is some form of life scrambling through the anthers, stamen, corolla and calyx. Fortunately, most are so intent on their occupation they don't notice that a giant w/camera has approached.

I go through this scenario frequently when taking photos for Cactus PhotoGraphics or for my website,

Flower petals and sepals are shaped to encourage and accept certain pollinators and reject others. Shape doesn't affect the spiders, for example, but it has a marked affect on whether bees, hummingbirds, bats and moths get in on the action. The Thurber gilia is a good example. Its pale lavender flowers are the wrong color to be noticed by hummingbirds and its tubes are too long for the hummingbirds to feed effectively. But this flower is an ideal food source for night fliers such as hawkmoths.

The evolutionary tricks are endless. The wild bean, for example, sports two-sided petals which serve as a convenient landing pad for bees that need to perch when they gather pollen. In contrast, the scarlet penstemon provides no such foothold and is a color that bees can't see...but alternately provides a perfect food source for hummingbirds that quickly distinguish reds and hover while feeding.

Cactus flowers, in particular, bloom when specific pollinators are seasonally abundant and active either nocturnally or during the daytime. Bats and hawkmoths aren't active during daylight hours but there are, nonetheless, cactus flowers open
at night just for them. By opening for only a few hours early in the day, certain other flowers encourage bees...which have a well developed sense of arrive faithfully for nectar and pollen.

Probably the "largest" of these adapters is the saguaro cactus which has flowers that stay open for only about 36 hrs. (including the night following daytime bloom) and is pollinated by birds, bees and nectar-feeding bats. Timing for these desert giants is critical. Pollination and later seed dispersal is timed for the summer rains which follow shortly thereafter.

Pollination takes place either actively or passively. While some common pollinators are actively looking for pollen, others are seeking only nectar, pollinating passively as they search for the nectar. Flowers are selective,
however, about which they allow.

Bees, for example, don't have a chance in hell of reaching the nectar in some flowers because they have short or non-existent tongues. Hawkmoths and certain butterflies, in contrast, have probosces which extend a full 1 1/2 to 2 in. to reach the nectar in other flowers such as columbine, gilia, and others.

What does all this go to show?...probably nothing of significance except that when you set out to take pictures of the sex organs of plants, you meet the strangest creatures. Sex and cameras have always gone together so I'm never surprised at what I see. Often it's only in photographic "post production", as the journals call it,
when cactus flowers are enlarged to two or three times life-size that I see the bees, bugs and spiders that have crept into the camera's frame.