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.