Thursday, July 15, 2010

If You Make a Mistake, You Die.

Currently 3 men from Salt Lake City are missing in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.  They went to this Wilderness Area to find the Lost Dutchman Goldmine, an enduring legend that has claimed at least 40 - 50 lives.
A green water hole within a few miles of hikers

Fools gold, fools to the end.
They ventured into this environment with no water, no knowledge of the desert, no imagination.  
Water is available throughout the Superstitions.  Springs are numerous and you can spot them from the light green shrubs and trees that surround them.  Some say they can smell it.  If the men die of thirst with the lights of Phoenix glowing on the horizon, I'm sure there is an old expression that applies to their foolishness.
I've hiked every trail in the Superstitions, often when temps are 110+, and a good part of the fun is the implicit challenge that, if you make a mistake, you die.
That was for fun, the challenge.
If you die for a vaporous legend of gold, shame.  Unfortunately, the men are past reproduction age and their genes have likely been passed along.
Much of my caution in the desert comes from the realization that thirst is maybe one of the worst ways to die.
I should go there soon, for the nostalgia, the thrill, for the knowledge that it's a risk activity. . . to get my soul back.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Cost of Water

It's about time someone began thinking in terms of $$$$
Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, has often said that the era of cheap water in Arizona is over.  It's a wise sentiment, and I think that it's high time the era of cheap water in Arizona was over, but is it really?  Have Arizonan water companies really changed the way they price their water for retail consumption?  Have consumers really changed the way they use it?  We're beginning to make some progress by implementing more increasing block rate structures.  With these rates, as usage hits a specified threshold, the per unit price of water rises for the next block of water usage.
How people can expect the least available commodity in the desert to be one of the least expensive stretches belief.
As prices rise, maybe people will get the idea that maybe, just maybe, water ought to be used more conservatively.
If nothing else, the current recession may drive this point home.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Views Are Numerous When Water is Short

As water supplies become short, ideas for solutions get numerous.  
Most involve superficial changes.  
The answer, in Arizona at least, is fewer people to consume this resource.  
Below are a few comments from readers and news sources.

From a reader
Governor Brewer recently signed Senate Bill 1445; this bill allows Prescott, AZ. to pump water from the Big Chino aquifer at an unknown rate through a 36-inch pipe.  This action is in violation of Arizona Revised Statute 45-555(E) (transferring ground water from one aquifer to another) they plan (as I understand) to replenish the water with effluent water (outflow from a sewer or sewage system) from the city of Prescott. The effluent water will kill many species of marine animals and affect the health of people who eat crops irrigated from the Verde River or put farmers/ranchers that have used the Verde for 50 plus years out of business. The other option is, if Prescott does not replenish the river with effluent water, the river will dry up allowing all vegetation and wild life that the river supports to disappear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

from the Arizona Daily Star

Increased usage of effluent called a path to water goals

Stepping up the use of treated sewage effluent is one path for the Tucson region to meet a 2025 deadline to stop over pumping its aquifer, a new state report says.

But Tucsonans need not drink treated sewage effluent for the region to meet that goal, a state official said Monday.

We can use effluent to at least temporarily reach "safe yield" by balancing the amount of water people pump from the ground with what is replenished, the Arizona Department of Water Resources report says.

Enough other uses exist for the effluent, such as putting it on golf courses and parks, and using it at power plants so the area doesn't have to resort to treating it for drinking - called "toilet to tap," said Laura Grignano, a water-resources specialist for the department.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

also from the Arizona Daily Star

HOW WE'RE DOING: The Tucson area is making progress toward safe yield. The region's overdraft - the amount of pumping exceeding groundwater recharge - was 86,000 acre-feet in 1985, rose to 156,000 by 1995, but dropped to 50,000 by 2006 after the city of Tucson got renewable Central Arizona Project water. An acre-foot will serve three to four families for a year.
THE OUTLOOK: It's not good without another water source or more conservation. The overdraft will be about 112,900 acre-feet by 2025. It was nearly 23,000 acre-feet in 2006. The forecasts stem from three possible scenarios for regional water demand based on factors including population growth, the continuation of agriculture and the future of the area's copper mines.
IF CAP RUNS SHORT. If the water project has shortages during eight of the next 15 years, the groundwater overdraft would rise by 4 percent to 27 percent.
WITH MORE EFFLUENT. If the region can boost effluent use by 59 percent, the overdraft drops - to zero - by 2016 before rising slightly over the next few years. By 2025, it would be very small. This scenario does not consider the possibility of CAP shortages or the potential of using 28,000 acre-feet of effluent set aside for the Tohono O'odham Nation.
WHAT'S NEXT: Mawhinney said he will form a group to study the idea of using more effluent along with other solutions
The solution may lie with sociologists, not hydrologists.  Our perception is that the desert will support a population similar to Michigan.

As history beyond my lifespan will indicate, it won't.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Arizona's BP Disaster

Many people are appalled at the British Petroleum oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Remains of Mining in Jerome

The death of human and aquatic life has been vast.
With the probable death of the fishing industry in the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama the impact on people's livelihood is projected to be equally as bad.
But, closer to home . . . 
What difference is there between the BP spill in the Gulf and the devastation of mining operations in the state of Arizona?
Because of its mining heritage, Jerome has become a tourist attraction.
But, also, typical of the boom/bust economy of mining, the mines closed in 1953 and the population dropped from a high of 15,000 to a low of 350 today.
What has been left behind?
Note, in the photo above, nothing has grown on the mine waste in nearly 60 years.
And what has happened to the poisonous compounds that have leeched through the waste and possibly into the groundwater aquifer below? 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Where Goes Superior?

Ahh, Superior. 

Often, "Ahh..", used in this context is followed by "wilderness."  Maybe it should also be used in this sense about rural Arizona.

Superior, Arizona, is definitely rural, having sprung from nothing more than the geological discovery of copper and gold.  Geologists found it, mining interests exploited it,  millions of dollars were made by Resolution Copper stockholders, and now the excitement is winding down.

Mining exists in Superior at 10% of what it was, employment is at a level lower than that, people have retreated.

What remains. . . you be the judge...

Hey guys, where'd everybody go...?

Deserted streets, irrelevant stop sign.

Shuttered windows . . .

A lonely dentist. . .

Secrets behind the wall . . .

Storage? . . . ain't nuthin to store!

Sinclair's Little Dino. . . neither company nor logo has existed for years.

For the lonely town, lost employment, lost homes and shattered lives, Andrew Harding, Chief Executive of Copper, Rio Tinto Ltd., received total compensation of over $2 million annually.  Is he proud of what he does?. . . Who knows?. . . He lives in England.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Arizona Boggles on River Definition…Ownership

I carefully tore out Steve Ayers’ article, “Verde ownership status still on hold”, from a recent issue of the Verde Independent  and have read and re-read the piece a dozen times or more.

Attorneys are the only ones who seemingly understand the questions of ownership of the Verde River and courts keep passing the issue up, down, and sideways.

The basic question, courts are asking, is whether the Verde River was “navigable” in 1912 when Arizona became a state.

Navigable is the operative word.

The impact of the answer is two-pronged.
  1. If navigable, the State owns the Verde River and it is public.
  2. If it wasn’t navigable, adjacent property owners own the Verde and it is private.
Questions are legion.

Does Arizona legally define rivers as having to be “navigable”?

What is “navigable”…?
      Navigable to an inner tube?
      Navigable to a river boat drawing 1 – 2 ft. of water?
      Navigable to an inflatable raft?
      Navigable to a swimmer?

What is in the best interest of the State?

What is in the best interest of the people of Arizona?

Is it in the best interest of the State to let ownership fall to property owners of the region who would “own” the water and divert it to a ditch system to sell to various interests?

Whatever the questions…Whatever the speculations…The river will win.  Attach sufficient legal handles, manipulate it through the courts, “handle” it enough, and…it will fool you. 

Rivers can be fickle.  Maybe…just maybe, it will dry up and call itself a dry wash.  

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Water Use Comes Down to Money

The ultimate solution to water problems in Arizona will relate to money.  For example, charges for water in any dwelling, at least in Jerome, AZ, is charged according to the number of residents.

Use is not metered and – lacking meters –per person is the only practical method.  (Rumor has it that meters were purchased but subsequently stolen for their brass content – ironic in a billion-dollar copper camp.)

Water use is apparently governed only by pipe circumference and pressure, averages and the guesses of city administrators of what each of us will use to shower, shave, flush toilets, etc.

The question begs, “Can we conserve?” Of course.  The ways and means are obvious.

But, where’s the benefit?  If I conserve water, who cares?. . .My water bill won’t change.

While Jerome is irrelevant to the wider concerns of water use in Arizona, the problem persists for the majority of the state.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) struggles along without budget or teeth.  People still refer to “sustained safe use”, the state still seeks development and, realistically, there isn’t a developer with a buck and a dream who can’t demonstrate the probability of a 100-year’s sustainable supply.   

Without minimal charges for essential, personal use and rapidly escalating ones for discretionary use, a luxury tax if you will, sustainable water use will remain elusive.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Socialized Water Resources

Owning water resources in the desert is a novel idea, especially moving water such as rivers and streams.

The fact that litigation regarding various water "rights" has been stalled in Arizona courts for decades might lead anyone to the conclusion that water can't really be owned. . .at least not comfortably. . . and not in the sense that Arizona law seems to dictate.

The law is currently based on a "first use" concept.

Unfortunately, water is valuable in the Southwest because of its scarcity and attracts people who would try to own it -- and sell it.

What emerges is a suspicion that water, like the air, is a public commodity...that water may belong to everyone and should be handled that way.

If water is privately owned, on the other hand, the delivery of it is accomplished for a profit motive, not from the perspective that it is a resource necessary for living. Money is the motivator, at least on the supply side.

The current concept stretches the credulity of private ownership. I'd suggest, as an alternative, that all water resources be governed by a Public Utilities Commission that sets rates for consumers. And profit levels for suppliers.

What does a Public Utilities Commission do? It governs the utilities that gather, purify, treat, and deliver water to its customers. At least in that way water resources would be in a public trust and administrators would handle it for the public good.

Does this mean socialized water?

Of course...and, with "public" ownership comes equal distribution of the resource itself. If it belongs to everyone, a water resource manager could ensure that it is distributed more or less equally around the state.

That Water Resource Manager might operate from a measurable inventory of water resources or, at minimum, a rough idea of how much water exists. . . at least surface water.

There might be two provisos; 1. The resource not be irreparably depleted by use, and 2. Upstream uses not reduce downstream availability.

There could be a per capita allocation and possibly a cap-and-trade system for those who have wells.

Per capita? density limits? Look out your backdoor. The desert sets density limits of its own...and the limits aren't generous.

See also:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

This Is the Way It Used To Be

Northern Arizona has been paralyzed by rain and snow for several days.  Driving is treacherous through the hills and banked hair-pins of the roads and mountains.

My neighbor, Katie, remarked with a smile and obvious enthusiasm,  “This is the way it used to be.”  Katie Lee is 90 yrs old and has been out here for 50 years. 

Her perspective is invaluable either as an environmental commentator or harbinger of things to come.  Precipitation is at record or near-yearly record levels in this area, but her thoughts should give us pause.

Ought we to think of our soggy environment as temporal or should we think that this variable desert environment will settle back to its usual drought conditions? 

In simple terms, is this the way it will be or should we suspect that the snow plows will soon no longer have reason to cruise the roads?

Can we trust that our water glasses will fill in the future? I’m betting that the conditions that formed the gullies and arroyos we see today as dry, will remain dry in the future.  I think Katie does, also.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Adapt or Perish

Often public reporting of water resources in Arizona carries mixed messages.  Reports will point out the shortfall in Colorado River water for the Northern part of the state and yet, at the same, report that mountain snowpack affecting the southern and central parts of the state is above average and the state is doing well.

An article outlining Arizona water use in the Arizona Daily Star, January 10, 2010, pointed out that snowmelt was going through a shortfall in the north but “use”, on the other hand, was remaining constant...or increasing. 

Variable water supply, however, is a way of life in the desert…depending on mountain snowmelt, precipitation, effects of climate change (man-made or naturally cyclical), or any other vagary of nature.

“…extra-dry years balance extra-wet years,” said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist for the federal Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City.

"In 1998, the January forecast was 20 percent too low, and in 2006 the forecast was 60 percent too high," Alcorn said.

But what isn’t said is that these are numerical averages that have nothing to do with everyday, average use.  You don’t fill your drinking glass – or swimming pool in Phoenix – with numerical averages.

One gets a hint of this variability by looking at the plants that have adapted to this environment over millennia.

The ubiquitous prickly pear cactus is a good example. If water is “short” the prickly pear will contract.  Its leaves have evolved as spines to minimize water loss and the pad – or stem – expands or contracts to adapt to the environment. 

The water requirements of people, on the other hand, seem to remain constant or simply increase with population growth…they believe the numerical averages…and while supply is highly variable, people haven’t learned in this environment that our lives must adapt to a certain element of variability.

Where I’d suggest we look for an answer is the natural environment…the requirements of “lean necessity” in the desert.  If we continue to over-draft our system, like the prickly pear, we’ll have to begin to contract.

In harsh terms, it’s a choice of adapt or perish. 

See also:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Who Owns the Water?

Several weeks back I wrote . . .

1. 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? 

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

3. 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?

What emerges from these questions is a suspicion that water is, like the air, a public commodity…that water may belong to everyone and should be handled that way.

“You know that song,” says Wendy Wierich in her blog,, This Land Is Your Land?  “I got to thinking the other day about the vast natural resources that exist in the United States…”

“Here’s the question”, she continues, “How is it that individuals can get rich from national natural treasures?”

“If ‘it is our land’, we should get to decide what happens” she points out.  “If the government owned the natural resources, we could put the profits in a fund to pay for education, health care, retirement, social services for everybody. Everybody.”

“Instead a very few fat cats get fatter and the poor get poorer. We could all benefit from the intelligent mining of public natural resources. As it is, and as it will be, only a few will get the goodies.”

I don’t like the rhetoric nor do I agree with the sentimental approach.  And, by the way, she really should have cited Woody Guthrie if she was gonna use his words.  But, there is a kernel of truth here.

Maybe I get away from the point…who owns the water?...we’ll approach -- perhaps answer --  that question, next.

See also,

Friday, January 1, 2010

Some Basics About Water

Recently, I spent hours reading comments to an excellent article, "Tighter, costlier water shifting focus to curbing demand" by Shaun McKinnon in the Dec. 27, 2009 edition of the Arizona Republic.
It became obvious most of the commentators knew little about water or how it interacts with our environment.

Some basics....
1. Water can neither be created nor destroyed.
2. The state of water can be changed and it can exist as a liquid, vapor, or frozen (as snow or ice).
3. Water, as we are accustomed to seeing it, can be unavailable for use.
4. A somewhat reliable statistic is that 0.6% of water on earth is available for drinking.
5. Most importantly, it may take decades or centuries for surface water to trickle 400ft - 500ft or deeper to aquifers.

Taken singly or collectively, these facts should make us question  the practice of (a) pumping aquifers or (b) the validity of terms such as "assured safe yield", "sustainable use", or "assured 100 year supply."

Water for the West comes from the snow pack of the Sierra Mountains or the western slope of the Rockies.  If anyone can characterize this snow pack as "assured" or "sustainable", I'll buy a 100 yr pass to Aspen or Crested Butte.