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Surviving drought the hard way

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Rogue Columnist

Surviving drought the hard way

  • The Central Arizona Project's 336 mile canal - the longest aqueduct in the United States - diverts water from the Colorado River to serve 1 million acres of irrigated agricultural land in Central Arizona and to provide municipal water to Phoenix and Tucson.
    U.S. Bureau of Reclamation The Central Arizona Project's 336 mile canal - the longest aqueduct in the United States - diverts water from the Colorado River to serve 1 million acres of irrigated agricultural land in Central Arizona and to provide municipal water to Phoenix and Tucson.

It was only a matter of time before the national media figured out that California is not the only place at risk from historic drought and the dwindling Colorado River.

Here is Slate, wrong from the first paragraph. And the Washington Post, which doesn't seem to have a clue about the dreary reality of Arizona's economy.

As a counterweight, I promoted this column on Twitter and Facebook — and traffic on this site exploded. It is important that the media elites understand the complex water issues facing Arizona. I urge you to read or re-read it.

Can Arizona survive the drought caused by man-made climate change? Probably. The question is whether it will be the easy way or the hard way.

But here's an easy back-of-the-bar-napkin calculus. The population of Maricopa County, mostly metro Phoenix, was 1.5 million in 1980, before the completion of the Central Arizona Project canal and the proliferation of sprawl that preceded it and was anticipating it.

Today, the population is more than 4 million. So in the long run, metropolitan Phoenix's sustainable population — in any pleasantly liveable way — is that 1980 figure. Two-and-a-half million people need to leave, head back to the Midwest and the East.

That's a shocking apostasy for the powers-that-be that dream of a Sun Corridor of 8 million people or more, working in call centers, warehouses and selling services to each other with low-wage jobs. But that's reality. The Sun Corridor is not. Neither are the new hustles, such as subdivisions outside of Benson.

You can nibble around the margins: destroy the historic and livable oasis, push out the last agriculture and be entirely dependent on food from hundreds or thousands of miles away, drink treated sewage, wait for that long-promised cooling concrete and other techno-marvels...

It still won't be enough. With the accelerating effects of climate change, the state will always be falling behind if it continues its present habits. It is not merely a question of water, but also the rising expense of air conditioning the houses of millions of people, however much they surround their property with gravel. At the tipping point, they won't be able to afford it.

Desalination? Nope. Most of those efforts elsewhere have proved hugely expensive and failures. Another CAP canal? No way. The Upper Basin won't get fooled again and the Colorado is oversubscribed as it is. In both cases, the austerity driven federal government will not help Arizona again — and its GOP congressional delegation is more interested in right-wing crazy issues than doing anything to help the state.

In the decades ahead, there will probably be enough water for a Phoenix that pulls back to the footprint of the Salt River Project, in high-quality dense urban form, and returns to the renewable supplies of the Salt and Verde rivers. The Colorado is dying. We killed it. And the more carbon we keep burning into the global commons called the atmosphere will put all Western snowmelt at risk.

So people are going to have to leave. There are too many people in California. Too many for sure in Arizona. California has one of the most robust economies in the world. Who do you think will win any water pissing match?

This point can't be emphasized enough: Arizona can't keep adding people, certainly not in single-family tract house sprawl.

How on earth could this be brought about?

  • New land-use regulations that ban, either outright or through high taxes, building subdivisions outside the 1980 urban footprints. Hire the best lawyers to prevail in court or do workarounds.
  • A real-estate transaction tax.
  • Much higher progressive income and property taxes.
  • Tax carbon.

These measures would dissuade people from moving to Arizona and cause others to leave. The funds generated could be used to build a high-quality economy that is not dependent on population growth, sprawl and the short hustle. The above is only a start. I'm sure readers would have other ideas.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of wealthy Republican Gov. Douglas Anthony Roscoe Jr., aka "Doug Ducey," and the commanding majorities of Kooks in the state Legislature, these intelligent responses to reality stand no chance.

So reality will do it the hard way. This will play out over many years, even decades. And for much of that time, the denialists will continue to brightside and appear correct. Until denial is no longer an option and then things get ugly. The Real Estate Industrial Complex is already dead. It just doesn't know it.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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