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Greenbuild in Phoenix was the usual high-energy panoply of educational sessions, new product introductions in an ever-larger trade show, networking events, and — the reason our company sends so many of us — opportunities to promote our green building information resources. But this year, I was also looking forward to some vacation time following the conference. Jerelyn and I took five days' of vacation after Greenbuild to explore southern Arizona and celebrate our 25th anniversary. As day transitions to night on the flight back east, I reflect on that time. On Saturday morning, we traveled southeast from Phoenix, past Tucson, to the Hacienda Corona do Guevavi bed & breakfast in Nogales, Arizona, just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. The region is rich with wildlife and draws thousands of birders and others from throughout the world each year. Along with hundreds of bird species in the canyon oases sprinkled throughout Cochise Country (we saw about 60 species in our travels) are such exotic mammals as coati, ringtail, antelope jackrabbit, collared peccary (javalina), cougar (mountain lion), bobcat, and maybe (at least before the border fence) the rare cats ocelot and jaguar. Other than the antelope jackrabbit, we didn't see any others of those mammals, but it was great imagining them watching us from hidden spots rock ledges during our daily hikes. On all of these hikes, at least when I wasn't trying to identify another new bird species, I spent time thinking about — and discussing with Jerelyn — the water crisis facing this region.
Saguaro deeply ribbed and skinny; prickly pear wrinkled and thin; palo verdi leafless and brown; ocatillo appearing lifeless

Many formerly year-round creeks and rivers are dry or low; even huge waterside cottonwoods are stressed and sickly

Sabino Canyon
Nature adapts to water stress. The dramatic saguaro cactus, the signature species of the Sonoran Desert, shrinks in diameter during times of low water then swells when its wide skirt of shallow roots absorb water after rains, This year, the saguaro's circumference is deeply ribbed and skinny, putting this adaptation strategy to the test. Prickly pear cactus pads were wrinkled and thin. The thorny ocatillo wands looked lifeless as they await moisture (after a heavy rain they sprout leaves in a matter of days) — a wait that has lasted for months. And the palo verdi (Arizona's state tree with its distinctive green stems and trunks) were similarly bereft of leaves, leaving only the photosynthesizing stems and thorns to keep them going. Everything we saw was a study in adaptation to water stress. But the water table, upon which many of the species ultimately depend, has been falling with abandon in recent decades. Creeks and rivers that ran year-round a century ago are now dry beds, save for the occasional flash flood. Cottonwoods and sycamores along Sonoita Creek, where we spent a wonderful day exploring the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area in Patagonia, are stressed and sickly. What will become of these trees, some of which are hundreds of years old and towering — we measured the diameter of one massive cottonwood at 27 feet — should the water table keep falling in the region? In Tucson, where we spent our last two nights in the wonderful Desert Dove B&B (a short walk from an entrance to the eastern, Rincon Mountain district of Saguaro National Park), they had virtually no rain during their usual July-September rainy season and less than half of the usual annual 11-12 inches on rain has fallen in 2009. The city's water table has fallen as much as 150 feet just since the 1960s! Perhaps most remarkable to us is that hardly anyone seems to be paying attention. Other than officials whose job it is to deliver water, residents seem to be in denial. Predictions of climate change show that Arizona, like most of the western U.S., will become far dryer than it was during the 20th century, but even without climate change the region is in a water crisis. Perhaps there is such little focus on the water table in Arizona because Tucson now gets over half of its water from the ("renewable") Colorado River, and that fraction is projected to increase — so a falling water table isn't so important. Are they not aware of warnings from some researchers that the Colorado and its massive reservoirs could effectively run dry in the next few decades? Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, is currently only half full — or is that half-empty? Where would a loss of the Colorado's water leave the parched cities of Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas? The thought is almost too scary to talk about — let alone do something about. Draconian measures are needed to dramatically curtail water use. Development restrictions — as a start — are needed if Arizona is to come to grips with this crisis. In a state where residents can openly carry sidearms (as we saw displayed in a coffee shop in Patagonia by a swarthy chap among a group of rather rough-looking motorcyclists) and where John McCain's tenure as a senator is threatened by his "liberal" views, who is going to stand up and tell a property owner that he or she can't put in another subdivision? I wonder if, unconsciously, residents of Arizona — and Nevada and southern California and elsewhere in the Southwest — know that, ultimately, there are just too many people living there and drawing from its precious water supplies. How do you talk about a crisis that might necessitate people not only giving up their way of life — their swimming pools and 15-minute showers and irrigated lawns — but actually recognizing that the land and climate can't support the human population it contains and moving back to Michigan or Pennsylvania? No wonder the topic is taboo. Jerelyn and I talked about all this as we reveled in the arid beauty of the area. I can see why people like Arizona and want to retire there. Indeed, we very much look forward to coming back and seeing the Sonoran Desert at a different time of year (perhaps a "wet season" when desert vegetation comes to life in brilliant colors to compete for the scarce pollinators). But, as with our recent vacation, we would be temporal visitors to a region whose human carrying capacity is far lower than its current population. You can follow more of my musings on Twitter.

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1 Thank you for that. We North posted by Josie Carothers on 11/29/2009 at 04:13 pm

Thank you for that. We Northeasterners can only find a glimmer of imagination to grasp the enormity of the displacement those people must face someday soon. Change is coming to us all, but to them, sooner. It's like a dry Katrina in slow motion.

2 Thought about you two yesterd posted by Connie on 11/21/2009 at 07:16 am

Thought about you two yesterday although I didn't know where you were. Tom and I wandered that area a few years ago and had some similar musings even without knowing some of the actual numbers about the water table. Great photos and Happy Anniversary!!! Connie

3 You think pretty deep thought posted by Dan Slone on 11/23/2009 at 09:09 am

You think pretty deep thoughts on an anniversary vacation. Modern humans seen to believe that the earth has lost its ability to drive them from regions. It is time to examine the "increment" of system tolerance for sustainable human habitat. We understand air and surface water increments from a pollution standpoint, but we do not understand the carrying capacity of major systems.

Happy Anniversary!

4 Actually, Alex, based on my n posted by Jerry Yudelson on 11/23/2009 at 11:05 am

Actually, Alex, based on my nearly four years in Tucson, I would say that Arizona is actually in much better shape water-wise than California or Nevada, with groundwater management laws in place since 1980 that have cured much of the lowering of water tables and with groundwater banking of surplus water in wet years. In Tucson, the city now bans lawns in new apartment buildings and requires new homes to be plumbed for future graywater collection. Rainwater harvesting is much in vogue, as is desert landscaping. In fact, it's only the folks from other parts of the country who feel compelled to put in vestigal lawns in their back yards. In most developments, one is prohibited in Tucson from installing anything but native/adapted Sonoran desert vegetation. Glad you liked the weather in mid-November, though!

5 A recent article on NPR cover posted by Ron Goodwin on 12/17/2009 at 02:50 am

A recent article on NPR covered a current problem in Georgia and the water shortage in the Southeast. It reminded me of a solar still Stehen Callahan used on his raft described in Adrift. Has a large facility to harvest rising seawater been studed for future use?

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