Skip to content

Dead Pools

The dehydration of Arizona

The palm-lined pool at the Ritz Carlton, Paradise Valley, will be, upon its completion next year, the longest in North America, possibly the Northern Hemisphere—a cerulean gash that will run four hundred feet through twenty “verdant” acres of “secret gardens” and citrus “groves.” The resort itself will be the spiritual anchor of The Palmeraie, a $2 billion-dollar bacchanal of designer boutiques, farm-to-table “concepts,” and “bespoke” Fendi-designed residences set to rise three miles north of downtown Scottsdale, Arizona, once reputed to be the “Most Livable City” in North America, possibly the Northern Hemisphere. Today it’s little more than a dusty lot.

Swimming pools like the one at the Ritz Carlton are puddles in an arid state now suffering through its twenty-sixth year of drought; it will hold, at most, around a million gallons of water, likely less. In the ledger of civilization’s decline, it’s not the gallon but the acre-foot, or the amount of water required to cover an acre of land one-foot deep, that matters. The Ritz Carlton’s pool will hold around three acre-feet, enough to grow one-and-a-half acres of alfalfa. Arizona now cultivates two hundred sixty thousand acres of the crop, a sliver of its 26.2 million acres of farmland, though it receives, on average, less than fourteen inches of rain each year.

Even as Arizona’s population has gone from five to six to seven million people, over two-thirds of the state’s water—drawn from the Colorado River and from underground aquifers—has been used to keep the desert green year-round with everything from lettuce and honeydew to pistachios and spinach. For nearly a century, this plentiful water supply nurtured Arizona’s dreams of permanent growth. But now stubborn complications, long anticipated but studiously ignored, have intruded on the fantasy. In August, the federal government declared the first official shortage on the Colorado River, forcing mandatory cuts to Arizona’s allocation from the water source upon which forty million people across seven states depend. Even under the most optimistic projections, still harsher cuts are required. These will, in short order, obsolesce the largest and most expensive water transfer project ever built in the United States and force Arizona’s exurbanites and farmers to increase their reliance on groundwater, a resource formed over thousands of years but exploited in a matter of decades to the brink of irreversible lack. Within fifteen years, according to one estimate, the demand for water in the state may outstrip supply.

Gimme Moeur

Of the patchwork of statutes and court opinions dictating the apportionment of water in the reality-averse American West, none is quite so liable to turn the decrepit consensus to ash as the Colorado River Compact. At the time of its signing in 1922, it seemed a polite enough mechanism for conscripting the fourteen hundred miles of the Colorado River into private and public service. Guided by commerce secretary Herbert Hoover, who found every drop of water that failed to yield its “full commercial returns to the nation” an “economic waste,” the compact artificially divided the states of California, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada into an “upper” and “lower” basin, and allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water to each basin, leaving 1.5 million for Mexico and, under surplus conditions, a “bonus” one million acre-feet to the lower basin states of California, Nevada, and Arizona. But as Marc Reisner writes in Cadillac Desert, when it came time for the individual state legislatures to ratify the compact, they “quickly tore it to shreds.” California would not commit to the bargain if it didn’t get simultaneous congressional authorization for the Boulder Canyon Dam and a new canal to irrigate the Imperial Valley. Arizona, then home to around three million fewer people than California, refused to ratify the compact until the lower basin’s allotment was divided between states.

Six years later, the states still at an impasse, Congress agreed to authorize the Boulder Canyon Dam on the condition that at least six of the seven states ratified the compact, as well as if California accepted an annual allocation of 4.4 million acre-feet per year. Not only would this arrangement leave Arizona with substantially less water than the state’s legislature felt necessary to secure its future, but the construction of the dam would, regardless of any accrued benefit, in the unminced words of Governor George W.P. Hunt, amount to an “invasion.” “This bill reads like a peace treaty which a military autocrat would impose upon a conquered and vassal people,” he fumed to Congress. “Arizona, as a State, will slowly deteriorate and die of malnutrition.” Unperturbed, Congress forged ahead, and Arizona sought justice elsewhere, firing the opening salvo in what would become one of the longest Supreme Court battles in U.S. history. In 1931, in the first of ten decisions regarding the constitutionality of the Colorado River Compact, the Court ignored Arizona’s louder paranoiacs and approved what would become the Hoover Dam.

The young state’s next governor, B.B. Moeur, resolved to take up arms in defense of what Governor Hunt had called the Arizona’s “birthright.” In 1934, as the Bureau of Reclamation began test drilling at the site of a new dam that would divert water to growing southern California, Moeur dispatched an expeditionary force led by Major F.I. Pomeroy to patrol the Colorado River in commandeered ferryboats. The newly christened “Arizona Navy” was to report back on any attempt to violate the state’s sovereignty. One such attempt came—with all the force of a self-fulfilling prophecy—that November, when the Bureau began to erect a trestle bridge outside the town of Parker. Governor Moeur, perhaps gazing northwest from the grounds of the copper-gilded capitol to what would, fifty years later, become the concrete clusterfuck of the I-17 and I-10 interchange, decided to escalate matters. He declared martial law and sent a militia unit with forty infantrymen and twenty machine gunners to join the Arizona Navy, compelling the interior secretary, Harold Ickes, to order the Bureau to stand down, lest Pomeroy’s lot take up arms. The Supreme Court sided with Arizona, and the Parker Dam was put on hold—until the following year, at least, when California’s powerful congressional delegation pushed through a bill authorizing the project. Unprepared to declare war on or secede from the United States, Arizona retreated and, reluctantly, after another decade of pouting, agreed to ratify the compact. But it did so only to pave the way for the construction of one of those unconstitutional, sovereignty- infringing public works projects the likes of which it had spent the previous twenty years fighting against.

Over two-thirds of Arizona’s water—drawn from the Colorado River and from underground aquifers—has been used to keep the desert green year-round with everything from lettuce and honeydew to pistachios and spinach.

Specifically, Arizona wanted an aqueduct that would transport part of its share of the Colorado River to over two million acres of farmland in central and southern Arizona. The project would require water to be carried more than three hundred miles in distance and more than twelve hundred feet in elevation to sustain at extraordinary expense crops that could be grown cheaper and with less effort almost anywhere else. The idea had been in the ether since 1922, but the Bureau of Reclamation’s then-chief engineer had declared it a “mad man’s dream.” Under the leadership of Floyd Dominy, however, the Bureau tended to ignore such conclusions, or, ideally, buried them under a few million cubic yards of concrete. Because of Arizona’s reluctance to ratify the compact, the plan festered until 1964, when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall unveiled the Pacific Southwest Water Plan, which included, among cockamamie schemes to turn a great deal of the Grand Canyon into a lake, the contours of what would become (after four years of congressional bickering) the Central Arizona Project (CAP). But to secure the necessary support from California, the act included a provision that would prove to be both CAP’s and Arizona’s undoing: in the event of drought, California would receive its full entitlement to the Colorado River before Arizona would receive a drop.

At the time it seemed a reasonable concession, and work began to great fanfare. At a 1973 groundbreaking ceremony, the secretary of the interior gushed over this awe-inspiring “triumph in regional planning,” a “measure of the heritage and vision of the Southwest.” In an act of undeserved interpretive generosity, one might ascribe to this uninspired bureaucrat an acute sense of history; the glad-handers assembled at Havasu Springs Resort Area to toast the gargantuan taxpayer expense were not the first to construct an ill-fated irrigation system in the Sonoran Desert. Heritage should have taught Arizonans the history of the Hohokam, a people whose name has been said to come from the Pima Indian word meaning “those who have vanished.” They had, centuries earlier, constructed an elaborate system of canals that supported a population estimated at nearly four hundred thousand at the confluence of the Gila, Salt, and Verde rivers where downtown Phoenix would later be built—that is, until, around the beginning of the fifteenth century, when they disappeared. Explanations are various and none conclusive, but Marc Reisner speculates that the soil’s poor drainage screwed the Hohokam, with each irrigation turning the soil saltier and saltier until all their crops withered on the vine.

Under the strain of the prolonged drought fueled by accelerating climate change, the allocation regime created by the Colorado River Compact has entered its terminal phase.

In 1993, the Bureau of Reclamation declared CAP “substantially complete” and exceedingly over budget: originally estimated to cost some $833 million, it came in at $4.4 billion, earning it the distinction of being the largest and most expensive water transfer project ever completed in the United States. It was also the stupidest. The same year, Arizona’s governor convened an advisory committee that promptly concluded the project to be fucked: agricultural and irrigation districts would struggle to pay for the necessary diversion systems from the mainline aqueduct, and it would be “reasonable to assume that at some point most or all of the irrigation districts may choose or feel compelled to seek the protection of federal bankruptcy court.”

And the water itself would be, even with generous government subsidies, prohibitively expensive. Pumping stuff twelve hundred feet upward requires a lot of electricity—2.5 million megawatt-hours (MWh) to be precise, making CAP the single largest end user of electricity in the entire state. At the time of its completion, there wasn’t a single irrigation district in the state where CAP water was projected to be cheaper than groundwater. Additionally, the Bureau’s own projections showed that within fifty years CAP’s “firm” water delivery would dwindle from 1.6 million to three hundred thousand acre-feet per year, possibly less. Though sold as the miracle cure for all of Arizona’s water problems, CAP was doomed before a single shovel cleaved the earth. And in 2004 the state admitted as much when non-Native CAP customers were made to relinquish any hope of receiving CAP water after 2030 in exchange for paying lower rates as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Agreement, yet another in a long series of slapdash, snooze-button “solutions.” For an entire century this sort of arrogance passed for competence, but under the strain of the prolonged drought fueled by accelerating climate change, the allocation regime created by the Colorado River Compact has entered its terminal phase.

Pipe Nightmares

Arizona’s longstanding hostility to the terms of the compact was warranted, if misdirected: the river it described, the river on which 5.5 million irrigated acres would come to depend, simply does not exist. The compact’s foundational assumption that 17.5 million acre-feet of water coursed through the river annually was off—way off, determined as it was with imprecise instruments during some of the wettest years in the basin’s history, including 1907, when the river’s flow totaled some eight quadrillion gallons. In fact, the yearly flow of the Colorado over the last twelve hundred years—before the onset of the present ecological collapse—has been, after you subtract the annual evaporation from Lakes Mead and Powell, around 11 million acre-feet a year. That’s a difference of just under two trillion gallons of water, or roughly the amount New York City uses in six years.

The compact’s shoddy math has been widely known since at least 1953, though it’s routinely ignored by all relevant parties, who are variously dazzled by exponential population growth and zero-hour schemes to pipe water in from the Great Lakes. The luxury of feigned ignorance, made possible because the upper basin states have tended not to use their full allocations, finally became untenable in 2003. Every year since, more water has been diverted from the river than has come into it, leading to a rapid drawdown of Lakes Mead and Powell. This would have been an ideal juncture for the West to at least begin contemplating alternatives to the fantasy of permanent growth, but instead, in 2007, the seven signatories of the Colorado River Compact opted to hammer out a set of “interim guidelines” so as to postpone such existential musings until 2026.

In the meantime, Arizona and Nevada would agree to begin reducing their use of the river if and when Lake Mead dropped below 1,075 feet above sea level (or 35 percent of its total capacity) on January 1 of any given year. In July of 2016, Lake Mead dipped below that elevation but managed to recover by January 2017, buying Arizona time to prepare for life with less surface water by approving permits to build over 135,000 single-family homes through the end of 2020.

This past August, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the first official water shortage in the Colorado River Basin, instituting dramatic cuts that will hit Arizona the hardest. Under tier one restrictions, the state, having decades earlier agreed to let California get its share first, will be forced to reduce its use of the Colorado River by 18 percent, or less than 8 percent of its overall water supply. These cuts are just the beginning. In September, the Bureau released updated projections indicating the entire Colorado River storage system is at 39 percent of capacity—down ten percent from the year before. Worse, it’s possible Lake Powell may become a “dead pool” as early as next year, at which point Glen Canyon Dam will cease to generate hydroelectricity. Tier three cuts are more than likely to become necessary by 2025. And the overtaxed river’s flow is expected to decrease 10 percent, if not more, over the next century. There is no real plan in place to deal with any of this.

The immediate situation is dire enough: as part of the first-round cuts, the water flowing through the Central Arizona Project will be cut by 30 percent, leaving farmers in places like Pinal County high and dry by 2023, seven years earlier than previously expected. There, in a bleak prefiguration of the emergency that’ll soon engulf the rest of the state, up to 40 percent of Pinal County’s 232,224 irrigated acres, which funnel some $2.3 billion into the state’s economy, may be fallowed over the next few years, according to Stefanie Smallhouse, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. As a consolation, in 2019, the state legislature approved $20 million in loans to help farmers instead tap into or increase their reliance on water from another ailing source: underground.

Pump up the Dam

As the science-blind annals of the courts have it, ground and surface water are distinct entities, the former’s “existence, origin, movement and course . . . so secret, occult, and concealed,” as the Ohio Supreme Court decreed in 1861, that any attempt to impose regulations on it would be “practically impossible.” The apparent unknowability of aquifers led to the creation of the common-law doctrine of “reasonable use,” meaning that whosoever drilled a well into the earth could take out as much water as they pleased, neighboring wells be damned, so long as they did so not out of “malice” but with the sacred intention of turning a profit. In the nineteenth century, hydrology, a relatively new science, had not yet established that ground and surface water were part of the same hydrologic cycle, but even after the Ground Water Division of the U.S. Geological Survey proved that over-tapping an aquifer would affect surface-water flows, the courts declined to care. In 1931, with the Dust Bowl in full swing, Arizona’s Supreme Court declared ground and surface water to be legally separate, upholding the doctrine of “reasonable use” and laying the groundwork for the current imbroglio. “At each step in this history,” Robert Glennon writes in Water Follies, “the legal rules changed to favor economic development.”

In Arizona, farmers began pumping like mad. By 1953, 1.3 million irrigated acres, about the size of Delaware, blanketed the desert, and the state was over-drafting the aquifer by 2.3 million acre-feet per year. Seven years later, as Arizona continued fighting the terms of the Colorado River Compact, four out of every five acre-feet of water was coming out of the ground, according to Marc Reisner. Some farmers “could drill to two thousand feet and bring up nothing but hot brine,” he writes. At the same time, Phoenix’s population exploded: from 1950 to 1960, it grew 311 percent, to well over four hundred thousand people. As the water table plummeted, the ground followed: in areas northeast of Phoenix, the ground sunk as much as five feet between 1962 and 1982. According to Glennon, groundwater pumping had, by the turn of the millennium, dried up or degraded 90 percent of the state’s once perennial streams, rivers, and riparian habitats. Arizona was, in the words of state representative Morris K. Udall, “returning to desert, to dust.”

The real possibility of the earth swallowing any of the liver-spotted retirees golfing in Sun City spurred the state legislature to act—but not quickly. Only in 1980 did it manage to pass an act, the first of its kind in the nation, to regulate groundwater use in specific “active management areas.” The Groundwater Management Act, premised on the novel idea that water might be a public rather than a private good, imposed water conservation standards on all users that tightened over time, with the goal of bringing the five active management areas—primarily in and around cities like Prescott, Phoenix, and Tucson—to a point of sustainable, or “long-term,” balance with the aquifers by 2025. But the legislation was riddled with holes, including, according to a report from the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, that it failed to define what “long-term balance” actually meant, a degree of ambiguity that only benefited thirsty farmers.

The state now requires the abrupt cessation of an entire way of life if we are to avoid the helter-skelter brutality of severe water shortages.

Regulators later tried, in a rare bout of foresight, to extend similar rules to real estate developers asphalting the desert, requiring that they “prove” they would have access to at least one hundred years of water before they would be permitted to break ground on another Rosewood Estates or Rancho El Mirage. But once again, legislators capitulated to the growth imperative and in 1993 passed a law allowing developers to disregard groundwater limits in one place if they paid for water from the Colorado River to replenish groundwater elsewhere. Developers rushed through the loophole, running up an enormous deficit: by 2025, developers may owe aquifers more than four times as much water as they’ll have access to—some 65 billion gallons a year—as Abrahm Lustgarten writes in Grist.

Even though the regulations have helped stanch the rapid depletion of aquifers underlying these “active management areas,” there is almost no chance that any version of “safe yield” or “long-term balance” will be reached in less than four years—especially as the shortage on the Colorado River pressures farmers in active management areas to increase groundwater use. Worse, little to no regulation protects land outside of these active management areas. As Noah Gallagher Shannon reports in the New York Times, “Little has changed since statehood in 1912: A farmer needed only to file an Intent to Drill notice and pay a $150 permitting fee and was then free to pump as much as desired.” In 2017, one farm pumped 22 billion gallons of water from underground, almost double the volume of bottled water sold in the entire country over a year. But that figure’s just an estimate—the state of Arizona does not require farmers to track or report how much water they’re pumping at all.

Surveying the Gammage

Knowing that confusion precedes profit, international farming conglomerates have pounced on Arizona. With their own domestic aquifers depleted through unregulated pumping, corporations from countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are now outsourcing their agricultural production to another desert over eight thousand miles away. In 2014, the Saudi-Arabian Almarai Corporation bought ten thousand acres in Vicksburg, Arizona, to grow alfalfa, which it then shipped halfway around the world to feed Saudi Arabian cattle. The UAE firm Al Dahra followed suit, acquiring several thousand acres along both sides of the Arizona-California border to grow alfalfa, hay, and other crops that it then ships to east Asia. Meanwhile, these companies are drilling deeper and deeper wells to reach plummeting water tables, while smaller farms and families are left high and dry, unable to cover the exorbitant costs of drilling any further. They are now beginning to abandon homes and land that had supported farmers for generations. Still, it would be too easy to single out the Gulf States, ignoring their attraction to Arizona’s much-touted “business-friendly climate,” which has choked every attempt to regulate groundwater use outside the active management areas.

The real question should be why one of the driest states in the nation is its second largest producer of lettuce and spinach, or why farmers there produce nearly a quarter of the nation’s cantaloupe and honeydew, or why, as of 2017, the state grows well over seventeen thousand acres of pecan trees—one acre of mature trees requiring as much as six acre-feet of water per year, or up to 33,356,063,466 gallons of water.

This suicidal phenomenon is by no means isolated to the American West. Six years ago, NASA published the first-ever comprehensive study of global groundwater, indicating that of the thirty-seven major aquifer systems on earth, twenty-one have entered an inexorable decline. A third of the Ogallala Aquifer underneath the Great Plains has been depleted in just thirty years, while, in California, the Central Valley aquifer could very well drop beyond the reach of even the most advanced wells within thirty years, as the New York Times reports. In Arizona, that point is likely to come much sooner. Though the press began to ring the alarm bells this summer when the shortage on the Colorado River became official, the conservative stranglehold on the state legislature will likely continue to thwart anything that might put the screws on the $23.3 billion agriculture industry or the similarly robust tourism industry. Any regulation that might so much as hint to businesses and families that Arizona hurtles toward total dehydration is just a nonstarter.

The signatories of the Colorado River Compact must finally reckon with the shoddy accounting on which they’ve built paradise.

The state now requires the abrupt cessation of an entire way of life—the seizure of water rights from corporate farms; a wholesale, state-subsidized retreat from the suburbs—if we are to avoid the helter-skelter brutality of severe water shortages. That Wall Street speculators have lately arrived in Arizona, looking to make a quick buck off the increasingly hot commodity of cool water, should serve as a stark warning that the market expects widespread shortages are nigh, no matter what their representatives say. Beginning in 2013, the subsidiary of a subsidiary of a financial services conglomerate that buys and sells water assets across the West started purchasing water rights in the rural town of Cibola, Arizona, and moved to sell them to the growing suburb of Queen Creek—with the hope of making a tidy profit. “In my view there is enough water both to sustain a significant agricultural economy on the river and to support urban growth in Central Arizona,” Grady Gammage Jr., a spokesman for the firm, told the New York Times. Regrettably, Mr. Gammage is full of shit.

The Southwest has been suffering a drought since the early 2000s. It is, according to Science, worse than the worst stretches of major droughts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and it’s nearly as bad as the worst drought on record, which occurred in the sixteenth century. The situation has become so bleak that Utah’s governor has admitted only “divine intervention” will be of any use. He encouraged his constituents, regardless of faith, to pray for rain. Though allegedly a man of faith, Arizona governor Doug Ducey would never do such a thing, at least not yet: to call on God to save the state from its own rapaciousness would be to admit the necessity of its reversal, which is to say the halting and rapid drawdown of the state’s population. Six counties, including the most populous, may become uninhabitable within thirty years. By then, the summers in Phoenix will be on average three to five degrees hotter and untold thousands of households may find themselves with dry taps—and worthless homes.

This has done little to dampen the state’s prospects in the medium term. In August, as the federal government declared the Colorado River shortage, Facebook announced it would be opening a sprawling, “energy and water-efficient” data center east of Phoenix, joining the likes of Apple, Google, State Farm, Amazon, EdgeCore, and a slew of other firms that have expanded their footprint in the state in recent years. Home prices around Phoenix have risen by over 30 percent in the past year, and rents are up 17 percent, far outpacing the national average. Downtown, you can rent a “luxury” one-bedroom at the Stewart for $3,293 a month and enjoy the high-rise’s rooftop pool, or you can stroll across a few blocks of scorching asphalt to rent at the Adeline, so named for Mary Adeline Norris Gray. She arrived in Phoenix in 1868 and, as the developer writes, “upon seeing the Salt River Valley’s lush grass and its existing irrigation system dating back to the prehistoric Hohokams [sic], [she] recognized opportunity in the Valley immediately.” Her namesake tower will witness that “opportunity” dry up.

When Arizona finally ratified the Colorado River Compact in 1944, just over six hundred thousand people lived in the entire state. Seventy-six years later, the population had grown over 1,000 percent to 7.15 million people. Maricopa County is now the single fastest growing county in the country, and Phoenix is expected to grow by over one million people in the next decade as people flee from the wildfires and rising home prices of California, from one calamity to the next. They have acquired only a temporary reprieve. This exorbitant growth, to be safeguarded at all costs, will collide with the tenuous agreements governing water use across the entire Southwest in 2026, when the signatories of the Colorado River Compact must finally reckon with the shoddy accounting on which they’ve built paradise. Given the history of the fight over the Colorado River even in times of abundance, the water wars of tomorrow will unquestionably unfold on less civil terms.

“Solutions” to this crisis are, of course, being floated by various parties. Though to call it a crisis, as Joseph Masco writes in another context, “blocks thought by evoking the need for an emergency response to the potential loss of a status quo, emphasizing urgency and restoration” over the necessary whole cloth reconsideration of a system of resource exploitation that was never sustainable to begin with. But the status quo of permanent growth is precisely what Arizona hopes to preserve at any and all cost. This year, the state apportioned $160 million to a new seed fund that would study the cost and feasibility of a long-considered pipe dream: importing water over a thousand miles away from the Mississippi River. With strong bipartisan support, the legislature also asked Congress to pay for a federal study of the feasibility of building one such project, even though the Bureau of Reclamation already offered a price tag in 2012: $14.6 billion, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The pipelines would cost over $2,000 an acre-foot to operate—more than ten times the cost of delivering CAP to Arizona cities. Assuming it doesn’t gather dust for forty years like the Central Arizona Project, and is passed tomorrow, the pipeline would take thirty years to finish—five years to study, fifteen years to acquire permits for, and ten years to build—by which point it will be too late.