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  • Water Consumption and Sustainability in Arizona:A Tale of Two Desert Cities1
  • Paul Hirt (bio), Rachel Snyder (bio), Cyrus Hester (bio), and Kelli Larson (bio)

Helen Ingram, an astute critic of inequity, inefficiency, and flawed policy instruments, inspired a generation of scholars (including the authors of this essay) to critique the status quo and engage in scholarly research designed to improve the social and environmental consequences of water management. This essay honors her contributions to socially engaged scholarship.


In his provocative book Bird on Fire, Andrew Ross predicts a bleak future for the booming desert metropolis of Phoenix, which he calls "the world's least sustainable city." Ross sees Phoenix as a paradigm of the "national appetite for unrestrained growth," which he considers a dangerous anachronism in an age of global warming and overallocated and declining water supplies in the American Southwest.2 Environmental journalist William DeBuys, in his book A Great Aridness, endorses a similarly pessimistic view about the sustainability of metropolitan Phoenix in the face of increasing water demand from population growth and decreasing water supply due to climate change and shrinking groundwater supplies.3 Perhaps most pessimistic is science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi who recently imagined an unrelentingly dystopian future for Phoenix and the desert Southwest in his apocalyptic novel The Water Knife. Anticipating reduced water supplies and increased heat and thirst by the mid-21st century, Bacigalupi portrays a collapsed oasis civilization replete with interstate water wars, abandoned infrastructure, and extreme social inequality.4

In stark contrast to these portrayals of impending crisis are ubiquitous reassurances from municipal and state water managers that Phoenix's [End Page 264] and Tucson's water supplies are reliable and secure. Water managers and policy makers acknowledge that these urban centers may face some potentially serious challenges in future decades, but in contrast to the above authors, there is no sense of a coming crisis. Instead, official publications are full of praise for Arizona's purportedly smart and forwardthinking approach to securing water supplies for the long term, and full of assurances that there is plenty of water now and for the foreseeable future. For example, William R. Mee, former administrator for the City of Phoenix Water and Wastewater Department, stated in 1990: "Through comprehensive and thoughtful planning, the responsible application of best available water conservation technology, public education, and reuse of wastewater, our water resources can be managed to sustain projected growth."5 Similarly, in 2014 the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) published a report, Arizona's Next Century: A Strategic Vision for Water Supply Sustainability, in which the agency proudly touts Arizona's accomplishments. In a foreword to the report, the director of ADWR, Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, effused that "Arizonans should be proud of our long history of confronting our water supply challenges and successfully meeting the needs of our agricultural, industrial and domestic water users. Arizona has long demonstrated the resolve to take the necessary actions to ensure that sufficient and dependable water supplies are available for its long-term economic stability."6 In 2015, Arizona governor Doug Ducey introduced his Arizona Water Initiative with the following praise: "Thanks to more than a century of careful planning, sound decision-making and bold leadership from our predecessors, Arizona's water supply, at least in the near-term, is in a better-than- expected position."7

If one reads the reports of climate scientists and the publications of water resource scholars who analyze Arizona's water supply situation, a different picture emerges. While few of them are as pessimistic as Bacigalupi, DeBuys, and Ross, few of them are as sanguine as the politicians and agency heads quoted above. According to leading Southwest climate and water resource researchers at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, a serious water supply deficit exists now but has been masked by the draining of underground aquifers and the emptying of Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest storage reservoirs on the Colorado River. Since 1995, the Colorado River Basin states have been diverting more water from the Colorado River than the annual flow and by 2007 both Lakes Powell and Mead stood half empty. [End Page 265] According...