Water Flows Uphill Toward Money

Mort Rosenblum / Reader Supported News
Water Flows Uphill Toward Money General Dwight D Eisenhower, candidate for President, shakes hands with Arizona Senatorial Candidate Barry Goldwater, while Arizona Governor Howard Pyle speaks to an aide. Political Rally was held in Phoenix Union High School's Montgomery Stadium. (photo: Arizona Memory Project)

"Dristan,” a 1960s TV commercial exulted, “is like sending your sinuses to Arizona.” Lots of people did that and insisted on coming along with them. Today, the Grand Canyon state is at serious risk of drying up and blowing away.

Carpetbagger crazies from elsewhere now infest politics in Arizona, which squanders water on runaway “development”: urban sprawl with lush gardens and lawns, retirement meccas, thirsty crops, orchards, golf courses, spa resorts, surf parks and monster malls blasted with frigid air.

In the short run, Florida is more frightening. A mob-style megalomaniac and a self-proclaimed God surrogate vie for the Republican presidential nomination, each bent on crippling democracy. Yet politics are reversible. Heedless humans in Arizona are playing for keeps.

The mercury soars, wildfires rage, land sinks into depleted aquifers, freak floods that punctuate endemic drought devastate homes built in the wrong places. Unlearned lessons in the American West are vital on a planet where climate chaos fast approaches a point of no return.

Here’s a suggestion: No one should be allowed to settle in Arizona before visiting the Great House in Coolidge, remnants of Hohokam Indians whose desert-dwelling civilization thrived for a thousand years before mysteriously vanishing just before Columbus “discovered” America.

The Hohokam understood simple basics. To make the desert bloom, just add water. With stone axes and sharp sticks, they built 210 miles of canals. The multistory Great House, part of a bustling mud-walled city, had a built-in astrolabe to keep tabs on the heavens and the seasons.

Nature, they knew, is smarter than man. It provides natural splendor, teeming game and rich food crops. If you get in its way, you’re toast. No one has determined why their civilization collapsed so suddenly. Perhaps they elected a Kari Lake to lead them.

Long-time Arizonans are all migrants – “aliens” in Amerika uber alles parlance – except for tribes that settled here millennia ago. By June, when it is 100 degrees by breakfast, we are all people of color, Anglos and Mexican Americans alike.

In 1953, before the state was hotter than hell and bedeviled by politicians who fit right in, my dad drove me up from Tucson to the State Capitol in Phoenix. As a kid, he had escaped a bloody Russian revolution and antisemitic pogroms. He wanted me to see what made America great.

The governor wasn’t in, but his secretary sat me in his chair. Cool, I thought, plopping my 10-year-old self into well-worn leather and studying all those stern portraits and relics of a checkered past on the wall. Democracy looked pretty good.

Gov. Howard Pyle was a Republican, dubbed the Grand Old Party after Lincoln ended slavery and stitched together a warring nation. So was Dwight Eisenhower, who had led Allied forces that beat back Adolf Hitler. Likewise, Benjamin Harrison who declared the Hohokam’s Casa Grande ruins America’s first cultural reserve in 1892.

One portrait was of George W.P. Hunt. At 5’9” and 300 pounds, with a drooping mustache, he called himself the Old Walrus. He was the first governor in 1912 and served six more terms, off and on. A progressive Democrat, he championed women’s suffrage, compulsory education, income tax, unions and secret ballots.

Hunt fought bitterly but failed to keep California from hogging the Colorado River when seven states divvied it up in 1922. Arizona thrived on its five C’s: copper, cattle, citrus, cotton and climate. These days, those add up to a sixth C: a curse. Water flows uphill toward money.

In territorial days, Arizona’s rivers ran deep and wide. Once, when flooding isolated Phoenix, a newspaper editor commented that nature had spared the good people of Arizona from the depredations of its legislature for another year.

Now federal mediators plan to slash states’ allotments to dwindling Colorado River water, perhaps by one-third in Arizona. Despite this year’s decent rains and snow, reservoirs at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams are near dead pool. Hydroelectric generators may have to shut down.

Some authorities try to cut back. Others squander what is left as if there were no tomorrow.

The Central Arizona Project has supplied water down to southern Arizona since the 1960s, but engineers left its canals uncovered to save money. As much as half the water they carry evaporates. And now the mayor of Tucson wants to plant a million trees.

Given the complexities, just about any reasonable-sounding argument can be made to justify water use, mostly offset exchange deals with other users. But in the end, it all comes from the same endangered sources.

Writ large, the curse is global. The Nile is disastrously oversubscribed. Turkey has dammed the Tigris and Euphrates, which water Mesopotamia. The Yellow River’s watershed covers much of northern China. At times, it is so low that it runs dry before reaching the sea.

But in the Colorado basin, greed and folly play a dominant role. Rather than cut back to sensible water use and demand sacrifices, new industries such as Taiwan’s projected $12 billion chip-making plant demand yet more. Politicians push solutions that veer into lunacy.

Just before leaving office, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey tried hard to spend billions on a desalinization plant on the Gulf of California in Mexico. Apart from depending on supply from a foreign country, salt residue would alter the gulf’s fragile balance. Water would have to be pumped for hundreds of miles uphill. And it would amount to a drop in a very deep bucket.

Phoenix is now the fifth-largest American city, surpassing Philadelphia at nearly 1.7 million, with more in its periphery, and the state is growing exponentially. Despite that, Arizona is quietly selling its diminishing water to foreigners.

In most of the state, landowners have the rights to subsurface water. Years too late, news reports have finally dug into a shocking story in La Paz County, across the Colorado River from California. Reveal, the Berkeley-based nonprofit, first reported it on NPR, and I hurried up to check it out.

Almarai, a large Saudi dairy, bought an expanse of high desert in 2014 to sink wells to grow alfalfa. Trucks carry it in bales to Long Beach. Container ships take them to Jidda so Saudi kids have ice cream. A few people happily sold their land. Many others’ wells ran dry as the ancient water table dropped.

The county supervisor, a public-spirited Republican, was eager for publicity to stop the plunder. When I tried to sell the story, editors replied, “It’s been done.” Today, “breaking news” earns prizes. Detailed follow-ups, not so much. Without scrutiny, other Arab states made similar deals. Then the Chinese began buying Arizona land.

Last year, the Phoenix Arizona Republic revealed that Almarai has also been leasing 3,500 acres of water rights from the State Land Department at rates as low as one-sixth the market price. Kris Mayes, the newly elected Democratic attorney general, has plans to stop what she calls “the Saudi land grab.”

Natalie Koch of Syracuse University, an expert on hydrology in Arizona and Saudi Arabia, described the larger problem in a recent New York Times op-ed: “Arizona is not the victim of evil outsiders: it’s the victim of its own hubris and political failings that allow such a system to exist.”

The headline had a grim ring of truth: “Arizona Is Racing to Its Last Drop of Groundwater.”

The soaring demand for electric vehicles is another calamity in Arizona. Two-thirds of the nation’s copper is mined across the state, which depletes aquifers and drains rare wetlands. EVs don’t burn fossil fuel. But if you calculate the impact of producing copper and other metals to build them, each car can create as much carbon pollution as three gas-gulping SUVs.

Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to run cars and trucks on water. But like nuclear fusion, that requires huge investment to develop the technology. When big industry funds politicians, and news reporting mostly ignores the result, things don’t work that way.

I’ve written before about the 10-year battle to save wild country in the Santa Rita range south of Tucson from a Canadian company’s plans for Rosemont Mine on U.S. Forest Service land. Under an 1872 law, Hudbay Minerals of Toronto would pay no royalties and only token taxes. Concentrate would be smelted in Asia, with profits going to Canada. Recreational use is far more valuable without savaging rare wetlands, game habitats and hiking trails.

Hudbay nearly won approval during the Trump years, but lawsuits by environmentalists and Indian tribes still block the project. In the meantime, it bought large tracts of adjacent private land and is pushing ahead with a larger separate operation: Copper World.

TV commercials tout thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in benefits, with finished copper produced on site, clean and green. Not exactly. Managers and skilled workers would cycle in from other Hudbay mines. Processing on site requires leaching with sulfuric acid, which leaves scarred land and impacts water sources. Profits would still go to Canada.

Final permits are still pending, but bulldozers are already clearing land. Security guards block access to some favorite Santa Rita peaks.

Mines use gargantuan ore carriers, and the Caterpillar headquarters in Tucson boasts a new electric-powered version. That, of course, means yet more copper must be mined for their batteries and circuitry.

Mine opponents are heavily funded by a family-owned company with 110,000 pecan trees nearby that use even more water than Hudbay would. In the long term, its land may be converted to yet more housing.

Three-quarters of Arizona water goes into crops and trees that are no longer sustainable after a decade of drought with bleak prospects for the future. As exotic plants muscle aside native growth in urban areas, Arizona is no place to send sinuses. Yet people keep coming.

Simple solutions are ignored. For instance, a contractor friend near Tucson built a sizeable family home that uses only captured rainwater stored in a reservoir under its foundation. Its swimming pool is covered when not used. Otherwise, it would evaporate 85 gallons a day.

Water harvesting is as old as the Hohokam. Yet barely 68,000 people a year visit the Casa Grande ruins. It covers only 472 acres. But left in its natural stage, desert vegetation teems with rabbits and rodents, which fatten a pair of great horned owls that live in the Great House.

Winter visitors often miss the crisis. After unusual rains at the right time this season, a few state parks are ablaze in purple lupins, yellow-gold poppies and pink penstemon. At Picacho Peak near Tucson this morning, 100 cars had lined up by 9 a.m. to pay $7 to see color that once would have covered mile upon mile of open desert. By May, only dry grass will remain.

Last month, I revisited the Tortolitas, mini mountains north of Tucson. The Hohokam thrived there by Honeybee Creek, which ran year-around in a dramatic canyon. I almost bought 20 acres nearby in the 1970s to build a hideaway when not on the road. My then-wife brought me to my senses. It was way too remote for her to live alone if I was halfway around the world.

Tortolita means “little turtle dove.” Developers renamed it Dove Mountain, built a Ritz-Carlton resort and paved paradise. Sidewalks and blacktop streets cover old animal trails; sensible fauna ran for their lives. Unique Sonoran cactus was bladed for a luxury hotel and elaborate homes with pools and burbling fountains. A state survey in 2021 tallied 219 golf courses, each using about 450,000 gallons daily. Dove Mountain has two.

That remote bit of old Arizona is now thick with wealthy water-wasters from somewhere else who vote largely Republican and complain about “aliens” who have been in Arizona for countless generations. One of my neighbors would have been Steve Bannon.

Trump’s Rasputin now travels in Europe, fanning fascism wherever he can. But he bought a $1.5 million Tortolita home, presumably with funds that he scammed supposedly to build a section of that cursed Wall, which destroys yet more relics of the ancients’ forgotten wisdom.

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