Phoenix and water – what’s plan B?

James Lawrence Powell concludes his otherwise excellent western water history Dead Pool with an apocalyptic vision of the abandonment of Phoenix, “a Grapes of Wrath-like exodus in reverse” as drought saps the Arizona city of its last reserves of water. It’s a vision I don’t buy (hence my “otherwise excellent” tag), because we won’t abandon Phoenix – or Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver etc., the arid climate cities built in the 20th century based on the notion that we could bring rivers to them. The question is not will it happen, but how we will avoid it, and how painful the process will be.

It’s not hard to think up solutions that make hydrologic sense – reallocation of water from current to future uses, conservation measures, extreme growth controls, price-based economic solutions. But it’s also easy to make the case for why those solutions aren’t politically viable.

So what’s our Plan B?

Arizona Population Growth, via Google Public Data

I was thinking about Powell’s end point as I read a terrific piece this week by journalist Jon Talton, late of Phoenix, now settled in considerably wetter Seattle. It’s a fire-in-the-belly response to the way Phoenix is blindly stumbling forward into its arid future:

In general, Arizona’s water issues are stark and simple: The state can’t sustain double-digit percentage population increases every decade, particularly in subdivisions apart from historic urban footprints.

And this:

Here’s what I know: The Colorado River is oversubscribed. It can’t support the population that depends on it now, much less added growth. The paralyzed federal government would not build a second CAP canal (“pork”), as some dream, even if the water was there. The Upper Basin states (and Mexico) will never allow themselves to get fleeced again by California, Arizona and (now) Las Vegas.

And on he goes. His analysis of the problem, honed by his work as a journalist in Phoenix and what he describes as a childhood as son of one of the people who help build the Central Arizona Project, Phoenix’s river uphill from the Colorado, is razor sharp. Go read it.

But his solution is not.

1) Stop all exurban development; 2) Stop all development outside the real urban footprints of cities and towns — that means no more Pinal or Buckeye sprawl; 3) Shrink the state’s population through taxes, “anti-business” regulations and whatever other creative solution someone can reach (the heat may do this anyway); 4) Price water extremely high outside the SRP footprint and a few other quasi-sustainable areas; 5) Start to return much of metro Phoenix’s fringes to natural desert — yes, tear down the crap; 6) Get a real handle on the state’s water resources, based on science, not the venal appetite of the Growth Machine; 7) Fill in the old SRP footprint with high-quality dense development that includes plenty of shade tree and grass oases but also building based on Spanish and Moorish models rather than American tract houses with large expanses out front; also, with much less pavement 8) Tax the fringe areas to encourage migration either out of state or into the dense SRP footprint or other such areas. 9) Shut down any golf course built after 1970; 10) Have statewide, airtight water regulations. Not the least impediment to realizing these solutions would be building an economy based on more than sprawl. So…no chance.

Lake Mead's Bathtub Ring, April 2010

It’s probably not fair to criticize Talton here, because he acknowledges the point I’m trying to make with his “no chance” closer. He recognizes that we’re not going to get Jon Talton as czar of Arizona, with the power to implement all this stuff.

So really, Jon Talton’s solutions to Arizona’s water problems are not going to happen. What’s Plan B?

I believe (and this is at the heart of where I’m heading with my book) that the solution does not lie in specifying a workable hydrologic or legal solution – taking X acres out of ag, reducing per capita household consumption to Y, rewriting the Colorado River Compact, revising the doctrine of prior appropriation, raising prices to Z.

The solution instead lies in creating the institutional framework in which a useful conversation can be held and politically viable solutions can be crafted. The math, how many acre feet of water we need to save here to use there, has to wait.

“So how are you going to do that, John?”

Yeah. I realize that at this point I’m about as useless here as Talton’s politically impossible solution set. I’ll get back to you when I’ve figured out the next step.

But I will suggest a couple of case studies that interest me, where collective action on seemingly intractable common pool water resource problems has happened.

On is Elinor Ostrom’s case study of greater Los Angeles groundwater basin management. (Some previous Inkstain discussion here and here.) The other, which I’m immersed in now, is the 2007 Colorado River shortage sharing agreement.

Other examples come to mind?


  1. Great blog post. The cost of sustaining growth in these Western cities is – will be – astronomical. It will indeed be painful unless some reasonable constraints are put on growth and on how the economic burden of growth will be borne (by government, or by builders).

    Love your blog. Thanks for this good contribution.

  2. Actually you’re distinctly less useful since all you’ve done is beg the question. 🙂

    It might be informative to consider what the response would be to the sort of drought that put an end to the Hohokam. Under those circumstances much of what he suggests starts looking a lot more reasonable, but on the other hand so does large-scale nuke-powered desal on the coast.

  3. ‘On is Elinor’ should be ‘One is Elinor’. Sorry, I edit reflexively.

    There are examples of what works and what does not work in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” The management of trees and growth in an upland valley in the South Pacific seems most useful.

    ‘Politically viable’ seems to translate to ‘what can politicians do and still get reelected?’ which then translates to ‘How much attention does the electorate pay to things that will happen in the future over things that are happening today, such as unemployment?’ In economic terms, the final question can be restated as ‘What is the public’s discount rate for high risk, unprecedented events?’ The usual answer to this question is that the discount rate is greater than 75% –if the event is unusual and does not occur this year, who cares?

    Under this logic, any solution that makes it politically viable to ‘punt’ (see Revkin article on the Senate and the climate bill) a solution into the future is not a solution.

    Assuming that a solution to Phoenix’s water problem should be a political solution then the question becomes how to make punting a solution down the road politically inviable. If the solution, however, is not a political one, then market forces will take care of Phoenix. Builders will stop building when they can no longer get water and the outskirts of Phoenix will resemble the outskirts of Los Angeles–many empty houses that use very little water.

    Both the political solution and non-political solution are likely to involve a crash, as Zetland and the stock market have shown. The solutions will involve a crash because that is the way the human herd behavior works.


  4. The Law of the River IS the institutional structure. Given the amount of work needed to get to where we are today, expecting a brand new structure to arise is really fantasy.

    One of two things is going to happen: 1. The urban users of California and Arizona will get federal laws passed that allow them to buy out ever-increasing portions of the ag users’ share (primarily IID). 2. They don’t, and find ways to live within their current allocation. (like building desal plants in Southern California, and getting MWD to take their water from the ocean in lieu, or drastically ramping up re-use, or drastically curtailing outdoor use, or requiring all new development to show a reliable water supply, etc.)

  5. For one thing buy up all the foreclosed houses on the outskirts and turn the land into a nature reserve. Tell the banks and the homeowners who are underwater that this is their last best chance.

    Be creative and move them to denser housing in the inner area if they want to stay.

    Yes, it will cost money. That’s what taxes are for, the common good.

  6. Folks – Thanks for all the great comments. I love my readers.

    Eric – There are politically viable solutions that allow developers to build despite a lack of groundwater. This groundwater mining option is what is being done now in Arizona and, to a lesser extent, Albuquerque. It’s a build now, leave problem for future generations approach. By the time the market actually takes care of the problem, preventing new construction because of a lack of water, there also will be a lot of old construction built on unsustainable groundwater that will also be dry. Down that path lies the James Lawrence Powell abandonment scenario.

    Francis – Great point regarding the Law of the River as the institutional structure. I absolutely agree. That’s why the 2007 shortage sharing agreement is so interesting to me. Rather than an imposed solution (the USBR folks had numbers at the start that could have been imposed and made to work) you had something that developed out of a sometimes contentious process of negotiation that ultimately all seven states agreed to.

    When I ask what the institutional structures might be, I’m not asking for the Law of the River to be thrown out and something new substituted. What I’m saying is that discussion of specific solutions, like Eli’s buying up foreclosed Phoenix houses, or Talton’s list of 10, isn’t terribly helpful until we have some institutional framework in place in Phoenix that can realistically make and implement decisions like that.

    Specifying solutions is straightforward. What’s hard is setting up the political framework to make them happen. That’s why I liked it, Francis, when you didn’t say simply “ag to urban”, but rather than you noted the need for federal legislation. That’s the kind of process suggestion that gives some reality to the discussion. What I expect, in fact, is some mix of your (Francis’s) 1 and 2 – ag to urban, “new” water and living within means. What I’m interested in is how we negotiate the political minefields between here and there.

  7. (gee, thanks.)

    The broader point is that water is too important to voters to assume that a market will solve the problem. It won’t. Infrastructure is too expensive and water is too vital to life for markets to exist. The only alternative is us — government.

    As a (now-unemployed, due to the great recession) California water lawyer, I know a lot about California’s water woes, and nothing about Arizona’s. But the simple truth of the matter is that politics matters. Will the IID Board negotiate? That’s an issue of local politics. Which way will the California senators jump if MWD and CAP seek federal assistance in putting pressure on IID and other ag rights holders? Where is Harry Reid on this issue? And the President? Who do they listen to on these issues? Who will be president in 2012, 2016, 2020? Which party will control the Senate? Just how hard will climate change affect the Colorado River basin?

    [this is why good lobbyists are wealthy.]

    There is no one right answer nor one determinate future. I bet that in 50 years’ time, the winners and losers in the upcoming fight will look back to a few decisive moments where the battle for control over River water was won and lost, and that we right now have no idea when those moments will arise.

    But if I were an Arizona politician, I’d be calling over to MWD today, and trying to make a deal that sends lots more dollars to IID in return for more of their water. If Arizona thinks that it can just seize IID’s water over IID’s objection, the only predictable result will be the enriching of a platoon (hmm, more like a company) of lawyers.

  8. Francis and John,
    Why can’t Arizona and California politicians just continue to punt on the issue of water?

    Punting on water will not (as far as I know)prevent them from being reelected. Doing something on water may make sure that they are not reelected.

    On Federal laws, what is the political calculus that makes it important for the Feds to make laws on water that only effect Arizona and California?

    Why not just let California and Arizona continue in their ways and suffer or not?

    If I were a Senator from Virginia or New Hampshire, why should I care about California’s woes?

  9. francis says “the only solution is government,” but fails to mention that government got us into this problem. The federal government (CAP), that is…

    My solution involves supply and demand, but it will not work until the feds stop giving away water that does not exist.

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