A Growing Thirst for Arizona

By Jessica Shepherd

On that day in April when Edessa and I visited the river, it should have been surging with spring melt. Instead, it was a necklace of disconnected pools and marshy areas, shallow enough to wade in most places. 

In mid-April, I flew into Tucson to visit family and friends. Leaving behind three feet of snow in south-central Alaska, I basked in the warmth of 80-degree days, ate a steady diet of tasty tacos, and played in the swimming pool with my six-year-old granddaughter. Despite a parched winter, hummingbirds zipped around the Sonoran Desert Museum where cactus and wildflowers bloomed in a profusion of colors. Spring, I smugly surmised, is the best time to visit the southwest. 

While I was there, I hooked up with my long-time friend Janine Spencer for a day of birdwatching in Madera Canyon, a few hours south of Tucson. En route, we talked about the housing boom around us. Janine had spent the last decade of her career documenting wildlife habitats and writing up mitigation plans for the city of Marana, just north of Tucson. Now, the areas where she had advocated for burrowing owls, families of Harris’s hawks, and desert tortoises, were overrun with housing complexes bearing names like Saguaro Bloom and Desert Oasis. Like toxic mushrooms, they were sprouting everywhere, eating away at the very habitats for whom they had been named. 

“This used to be all desert,” she said, gesturing out the window as we drove past another massive construction project. “I know I sound like one of those NIMBY people. I’m here, so close the gate, but when I bought my house 18 years ago, most of the area around here was wild and open, which is why it appealed to me.” 

We drove across a dry river bed (and really, they were all dry) before jumping onto I-10 and heading south.  “No one is talking about overpopulation anymore,” Janine continued, “but this habitat can’t continue to support all the people who are here, let alone all the people who want to move here, especially with climate change.”  She slowed to accommodate a line of cars merging off of I-19 before continuing. “I just hope I sell my house before we run out of water.”

In fact, the greater Tucson and Phoenix metropolitan areas, which comprise 80% of the state’s population, get their water from a combination of diminishing groundwater and the Colorado River via a 336-mile aqueduct system that draws from Havasu Lake on the Arizona/California border. A twenty-year megadrought, coupled with a 24% population increase in western states and unresolved legal claims by area tribes and Mexico, are a growing dust storm on the horizon. Federal management plans for the Colorado River and independent research call for as much as a 40 percent reduction in Colorado River use by 2050.  As early as next year, Arizona is slated to lose 18% of its Colorado River supply due to drought and redistribution. I try to imagine how that might play out and nothing good comes to mind. 

It’s hard to visit Arizona, at least for me, and not think about another gathering storm – the humanitarian crisis occurring along the Mexico border. Janine had worked for years doing wildlife surveys near the border and saw the desperate carnage of water bottles, discarded clothing, and campsites left behind by people fleeing poverty, violence, and hopelessness.

“You know,” she said, as if reading my mind, “it’s mainly Americans and first-world people causing all the problems with overconsumption and climate change.” As if to drive home her point, a semi bearing the Costco logo roared past on our left. “There are plenty of jobs that people in this country don’t want, like harvesting lettuce or working in a meatpacking plant.” She continued, glancing at me briefly.  “We should let people in to do those jobs.” 

I concurred and added, “One of the main arguments in favor of bringing more children into the world is to bolster safety nets like social security. I think that’s terribly short-sighted. If, instead of incentivizing bigger families, we allow a small but steady influx of legal immigrants to naturalize, they would pay taxes and shore up the system.” Ever the idealist, I imagined a well-run immigration system where people are resettled in areas with ample water and fertile agricultural land. Somewhere with an aging population yearning for an influx of young families to revitalize diminished towns and cities.  

I have long been a proponent for addressing overpopulation and took heart recently when the United States census numbers for 2020 were released. In this country, the birthrate has fallen to 1.73 -- below the 2.1 births per woman needed for a generation to replace itself. And despite predictions for a spike in birth rates following the onset of the pandemic, so far, the opposite is true. I find this to be a positive trend. But, like Janine and her admission of NIMBY, I already have my cherished granddaughters, the blue-eyed artist in Seattle, and the brown-eyed girl who throws her arms around my waist and says “I wish you lived here in Tucson so we could see you all the time.” So there’s that, now close the gate. 

For perspective, I was born in 1959, at the tail end of the 1946 - 1964 baby boom, and the same year the global population hit 3 billion people. When my son was born in 1980, there were 4.6 billion people. This number had risen to 6.1 billion by the time my first granddaughter was born in 2000, and to 7.4 billion in 2016 when my second granddaughter was born. This year, despite declining birth rates, we are projected to surpass 8 billion people. Looking ahead, according to a recent Lancet study, the world’s human population may peak in 2064 at 9.7 billion and then begin to fall to a projected 8.8 billion by 2100.

This begs the question of how many people the earth can support without decimating other species and their habitats? According to a variety of sources, a population of 1.5 billion is sustainable if our goal is to provide everyone with clean air and water, healthy food, and access to an education and adequate health care. Alas, we surpassed that number before the turn of the last century, back when we were expanding westward in covered wagons. So, short of a global one-child policy like China enacted in the 1970s, or a deadly pandemic we can’t suppress with vaccinations, any marked reduction in population will take centuries. The short-term answer then, to water shortages and all the other ills brought on by a bloated human population, is to scale back. That would mean prioritizing needs over wants and redefining what it means to be successful. 

At the tail end of my trip, I drove north to visit a friend, Edessa Carr, outside of Prescott for a few nights. Thirty years before, I had lived in this region of the state and, as a wildlife biologist, surveyed solitary stretches of the upper Verde River beginning with its spring-fed headwaters near my former home in Paulden. One of only two wild and scenic rivers in Arizona, the Verde runs through a deep canyon, verdant with cottonwoods, sycamores, and walnut trees, before flowing southeast 170 miles to its juncture with the Salt River north of Phoenix. Edessa and I first met when she accompanied me as a volunteer on remote stretches of my survey. We were an adventurous pair back then, trotting across train trestles to avoid descending into steep canyons and exploring Indian ruins so untouched it was as if we had discovered them.

We kept in contact via Christmas cards and photos, and all these years later, our reunion was joyful and seamless. She now lives just a fence line and a narrow dirt path away from the upper Verde River. The view from her front porch is of red canyon walls and the vibrant green of cottonwood and willow trees along the water’s edge. The green was in striking contrast to the desert landscape of rocks, sun-dried grasses, dark hackberry shrubs, and junipers around us.

Once again, I was charmed by the quietude of the Verde as we walked along the shaded banks, waded across with shoes in hand, and ate a picnic lunch while ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers flitted through the trees around us. But Arizona and the Verde were not as I had left them.

When I left the state, Arizona had a population of just under 4 million.  The Little Chino Aquafer, which gives rise to the upper Verde River, was largely untapped and fed the Verde perennially to its juncture with the Salt River. In fact, in February of 1993, I witnessed the Verde River rage and boil with the highest flows ever recorded. Now, amid extreme drought, the Verde is in trouble. On that day in April when Edessa and I visited the river, it should have been surging with spring melt. Instead, it was a necklace of disconnected pools and marshy areas, shallow enough to wade in most places. 

In the years I’ve been gone, Edessa (with a degree in geology and an interest in archeology, botany, and birds) has made a study of the river and the land around it. Her proximity allows her to explore the area daily, and she has made it her mission to educate others on the importance of this oasis amid a drying, dying desert. On our morning walk she pointed out old signs of beaver-felled trees, a muddy river otter slide, and a nest used the year prior by a zone-tailed hawk. This year it was home to a family of inquisitive great horned owls. She pointed out rocks stacked along the ridgeline, blending in almost perfectly with the topography. “Do you see that? I’m pretty sure Native people used that wall to funnel game animals for hunting.” She indicated currant bushes and had me examine the leaves of a young velvet ash tree so I understood the logic in the name. I could not have asked for a better guide. But there was no denying the plight of the river. “I’ve never seen it this low, especially in April,” she told me. 

On my second day there we took a drive to an overlook above the Verde. The land around us was arid, studded with prickly pear, cholla cacti, and juniper. She was effusive in her appreciation for an ancient, gnarled tree on the edge of the canyon. “Imagine how old it is.” She said. “It’s a survivor. Junipers to the north of here are dying because of the drought.” I shook my head at that. What could be more drought-resistant than a juniper? Beneath us, the cliffs fell away, and far below, cottonwood trees outlined the banks of the river. Edessa pointed to sharp bends in the river and explained how fault lines shifted the course of the water one way and then another. She gestured to a rockfall on the valley floor, “There are petroglyphs down there if you know where to look.” By that point, I was ready to move back to Arizona. I wanted to see the river I first fell in love with the same way she did, across seasons and droughts and administrations. When talking about water policy she conceded, “We keep presenting the data on stream gauge measurements and diminishing groundwater supplies to the community and policy-makers and they keep putting off any meaningful change.” 

My short stay in Arizona reawakened a long-dormant appreciation for the desert, and my husband Hal and I are contemplating a longer, more exploratory trip next winter. Like other northerners, we dream of being snowbirds – departing Alaska’s bleak winters for desert plateaus and streamside campsites in the west. Maybe we would only contribute to the problems of population and resource depletion. Or maybe, if we live lightly on the land, we could provide an example of a better way – a sort of leave-no-trace life.