Tag Archives: Megadrought

last stop everyone off

Superstition Mountains with Lacey and the Coyotes

For more than a decade every October I was the rarest of birds and traveled to Queen Creek, Arizona for work. Touring by truck and trailer I parked my rig in the field northeast of Rittenhouse and Cloud Road. Most years sheep were grazed adjacent to where I camped under the constant attention of a coyote hating sheepdog.

Mark and Carrie Schnepf run an entertainment farm in the easternmost corner of the Valley of the Sun. I would play my act on a lawn in the shade to family audiences seated on haybales presenting my juggling act and performing dog.

Back in 2000 Queen Creek was the end of the line, you couldn’t go further, Rittenhouse terminated here and all you could do was make a left and head toward the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

Audiences drove in from nearby Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Tempe, Phoenix, Scottsdale and even sometimes from Apache Junction. Locals referred to Apache Junction by its initials, and you want to elongate them, stretch them out— real’ good, you say, “A… J…”

Sunrise on Schnepf Farms

Mark Schnepf’s father settled this corner of the valley growing potatoes with groundwater. Other crops were grown too, but potato farming was the key commodity.

The water table began to sink lower, and the cost of electricity made it expensive to pump. Early settlers to this region could punch a well and hit water at 300 feet. By the 1950’s well drillers were having trouble finding water at a thousand feet.

It was 1993 when Queen Creek started getting some limited access to water from the just completed Arizona Central Canal Project. 

In 1990 the population of Queen Creek was 2500, in 2000 the town was twice that, and  is now home to over 51,000.

The explosive growth in this corner of Arizona has transformed a rural village into a traffic clogged suburb. At one point they were throwing up houses on this side of the valley at a clip of 10,000 per month. Then there are all the cars, schools, churches, and shopping centers. Occupants to the new homes arrived with children, if they happened to be members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints they arrived here with lots of children.  

San Tan Mountains for a Hike

By 2010 morning commutes were bumper to bumper, traffic signals were in such short supply they trailered in portable units to help unsnarl the busiest intersections.

Mark Schnepf and his family treated me as one of their very own. I had the run of the place. I could use the machine bays, fix my brakes, change sparkplugs, move around on the property as I needed. His most skilled farmworkers were housed on the land too and worked all year long, many have been with Mark since his childhood. The nanny that had raised Mark was the same nanny that helped raise Mark and Carrie’s children.

Big cotton growers were active just south of the farm. Acreage measured in the thousands. If you drove the area you’d see alfalfa fields, corn and citrus.

Schnepf Farms was a way to add value to what you could grow, and the entertainment programming was an enterprising device to drum up some buyers for what you had to offer that way you could sell for retail and cut that wholesaler out of the process altogether.

My Boss Carrie Schnepf with Lacey the Performing Dog

Most of what Mark Schnepf grows is in support of the entertainment programming. He planted pumpkins for Halloween, peaches for the spring festival, corn for a maze to walk around in, vegetable crops to serve at the farm café and bakery.

Schnepf Farm grows a lot of pumpkins for the October event. Pumpkins became so in demand he’d have extra shipped in from more water abundant farming districts.

Friday nights I’d drive north into Apache Junction to go two-stepping at the local country and western saloon. Dancing was fun, beer was cold, and conversation was colorful.

Monsoons arrived this summer, but the drought is still on. Unless you ranch, farm, or run a water dependent business the water shortage doesn’t occupy the front of your mind.

Just south of Queen Creek the San Tan Valley exploded onto the map going from a population of near zero to 96,000 in just 20 years. Two thirds are white, much of the rest are hispanic. New homebuyers moved here from other parts of the valley to get a newer bigger home for lower prices than are available as you get closer into the valley’s center.

San Tan Valley is inhabited by a people with no living memory of a place that until the new century was essentially an empty and desolate desert. San Tan Valley’s culture is in process, it is undergoing development, shaped by the new social media driven world. Your children may have gone to school here, but you didn’t, your parents didn’t, there was no here to grow up in.

Friction is building between the farms and the residents, the reasons are always the same, it’s because of the water. Some farmers saw the writing on the wall and sold their land off to developers. Get out while the getting was good.

The biggest impact of the climate shifting to being slightly dryer and hotter is that there is less water. Adapting to the shortage is uneven, some are hit harder than others. One farm because of their proximity to the Gila River continues to get their full allotment while another newer farm with subordinated water rights in a dry year is entitled to none.

Special Pyro Picture taken at Night at Schnepf Farms

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the unthinkable immediate impact of wildfire and drought. Much less attention has been given to what will come of the people here in the San Tan Valley should this drought persist. Is such a place able to survive such a crisis? Can the government function? If the drought grinds on access to residential water will become more expensive. If that doesn’t do the trick rationing will be mandated, if you use more than allowed, you’ll be fined, if you still flout the rules your water will be cut off.

If the drought persists water will be cut completely to agriculture. Herds will be auctioned off, farm equipment sold, farms and ranches foreclosed on with banks left to dispose of property certain to be worth much less, solvency issues would sure to take a bite out of the banks equity.  

Paramount to all of this is to do with the climate emergency and whether it could trigger the collapse of civilization. What keeps planners at the Pentagon awake nights has to do with cataclysmic events that trigger mass migrations, trigger skirmishes between factions in a community, the kinds of events not witnessed in North America ever before. Can our social and economic order be sustained by communities struggling through a water crisis? You start off with the given that Arizona’s politics runs hot as molten steel. I don’t know that we can know for sure if Arizona’s politics is configured to withstand such a jolt. Predictions are many, answers are few, your guess is as good as mine.

On the other side of the coin is that I know who these people are, I don’t know them by their political point of view. I know them as an audience, I have entertained these families not once or twice but for a decade. I know their hearts and minds. I know parents that love their children with everything they have. Still, for a place touched by such a crisis it will require truthful leaders, there won’t be any room for scapegoating, no finger pointing will get anyone one more drop of water, no blaming and complaining will fill a reservoir.

Scientists haven’t taken any pleasure in forecasting the impact climate change could make on civilization. Over the past half decade in California drought induced wildfires have erupted and the entire state has suffocated for days under a thick smokey haze. Firefighters struggle for months against these massive wildfires. Citizens have had to flee their homes. Whole towns have been lost. Greenville in the Dixie Fire is just yesterday. If the drought continues crunch time will arrive here in the San Tan Valley. Next year could give Arizona its first glimpse of the consequences of a changing climate. What will we do then?

Lacey retired after 5000 shows this was a good dog

What can we do now? Support climate mitigation efforts. Support expanding renewable energy technologies. Sell your gas-powered vehicle and buy an electric automobile or truck. Fly less. You don’t have to give up meat and dairy but use it wisely, be frugal, remember factory farmed animals are a gateway for zoonotic diseases that can cross over to humans and trigger worldwide pandemics. Urge your representatives to update water laws and land use policy. Perhaps the biggest problem is finding a way to keep the gas, oil and coal in the ground. Deploying regenerative farming practices, making steel with hydrogen powered furnaces, concrete too. The technology already exists, what is lacking is the sheer force of our political will to get the job done like right now, with no turning back. We can do this. The time has come.

I’m a glass half fool

Reclamation as Time Capsule

Every winter, from November until April Earthbound Farms operations move from the Salinas Valley of California to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. If you are eating a salad in January odds are stacked in your favor that the organic lettuce produced by Earthbound Farms was grown with water from the Colorado River.  

What is described as the lower basin of the Colorado River: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, have 186 million acres in agricultural production. Back of the envelop calculations estimate that our agriculture and ranch stakeholders use 80% of our drinking water. The remaining 20% is used for everything else. Agriculture using the lion share of our water returns about 3% to our gross domestic product. By way of comparison Apple Inc. in Cupertino is a $2 trillion enterprise and yes it needs to be noted that we can’t eat our iPhones, iPads and MacBook Pro’s, at least not yet.

Michael Kiparsky writing for the Los Angeles Times said that the relevant water rights records, estimated at more than 10 million pages of paper files, legal rights dating to the 19th century but still binding today are disbursed across 58 county courthouses in California.

Until now, as California is battered by drought, wildfire, and heatwaves there has been little interest in digging into this massive trove of tangled legal decisions. Water users have continued using while regulators have been directed by political leaders to look the other way- when they could- as long as they could. That dog won’t hunt any longer.

University of California at Berkeley School of Law has attempted to digitize a fraction of the relevant water rights documents. Evidence suggests the effort may be useful, that there is some hope the scanning and organizing of the records might be finished in a realistic time horizon and at reasonable cost.

Civilizations Plumbing

Nothing happens in the American Southwest without water. Crossing the Sonoran Desert on foot from the Mexican border to Tucson isn’t survivable without water. Scarcity has been a constant and now with demand outstripping supply the push comes to shove moment is pressing in on the region.

Arizona monsoons last week in Queen Creek, Mesa and Apache Junction dumped almost 1 inch of much needed precipitation. Parts of Scottsdale received about half that amount. Most other Arizona stations reported little to none. Last year’s monsoon season was a no-show. Each year half of all the water that falls in Arizona comes from these summer downpours. Banking on monsoon downpours is like betting the house with a chance of winning chump change. The monsoons are predictably unpredictable as the desert southwest has grown water that falls from the sky will never keep pace with demand.

Aqueducts and Reservoirs

Rebecca Solnit writes in the Guardian that we have reached a climate induced “turning point.” Anxieties about wildfire, drought and heatwaves have increased across the region as one disaster is predictably followed by another. Homes burn to the ground, wine is tainted by wildfire smoke and rendered worthless, exorbitant increases for fire insurance threaten vast regions of Northern California’s property owners caught up in land located in the urban-wildfire interface. Actuaries in the business of spreading risk see no winning hands for insurers and many are no longer writing new policies in California. The knock-on effects of these unanticipated higher costs are a piece of the reckoning climate change is forcing on the region.

As the megadrought bares down upon the Colorado River’s lower basin water managers are going to be forced to order water allocations cut, landowners with subordinated water rights will be forced to take their land out of production first, if that isn’t enough all stakeholders will have their water cut.

Closed forever

Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Los Angeles, our urban population will feel the impact in grocery stores as higher prices. The rural communities will be hit by losses as the farms can’t produce. Then there are all the second order effects, wages lost, seed and fertilizer not sold, crop dusters idled, truck drivers with no load to deliver.

Farmers growing vegetables in the Salinas Valley have optimized their operations. Labor is a key resource. Veteran farm hands returning each year work the same land with the same equipment to produce the same crop. Streamlining operations is a must.

Reconfiguring an operation for a crop that requires less water may be a bridge too far, the transition costs too high, the access to water too uncertain to get a bank to make a loan on a future crop they may never make it to harvest.

If you are driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you will drive through the Westland’s Water District. The regions access to water is tentative, only after those groups that possess the most senior water rights, usually dating back to before 1930 may water be made available to the Westland’s water users further downstream.

This is the poster child for a piece of the western regions 184 million acres destined to be removed from production. Water allocations have been over promised and cuts will be needed to bring the system back into balance.

Even if it rains and reservoirs begin to recover the higher temperatures and drier air means our recovery will be glacial, and there is every reason to be concerned that given our increasing population that Lake Powell and Lake Mead will never see enough runoff to be refilled to capacity. Too many stakeholders continue to demand their promised deeded access to too little. Excess heat trapping carbon particles in the atmosphere is the invisible piece of our crisis, the demand for rights to use the last drop of water is the most tangible.

In this modern go-go we can do anything world, without access to a reliable supply of water that can do attitude won’t get the job done. Even if you see the glass as half full there is still another half a glass of water missing.

Historic Building Waiting

Advances in irrigation technology add expense to production, the water scarce west will always be disadvantaged competing with same commodity produced in a more water abundant region.

Efficiencies also include crops that use less water producing food that can feed more people. This more direct use of our land for human consumption I liken to “farm to table,” in this case we rid our food production system of the intermediary, the animal we fatten, slaughter then eat, instead it is a system repurposed, this is the model of field to stomach, that is if you can imagine reprogramming the passionate tastebud driven throng trying to adapt to being satiated and contented eating further down the food chain.

Can’t imagine that? You’re not alone. Like a heart attack on a plate, a cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake consumed over decades by a well-meaning yet sedentary citizen there will be that moment that the cheeseburger eater is flat on their back, then there is the stranger attempting to revive you as you slip away into the vast eternity of the next chapter of your life, this is beyond the body, after it no longer matters what you eat.

At our dinner table there is all kinds of trash talk about wildfire risk. We calculate wind direction, relative humidity, and chance of fire as if this is the normal course of conversation. In our neighborhood the nearby pine trees are no longer regarded as safe. Fire resistant indigenous trees are less of a danger. Our leafy neighborhoods are both possessed of beauty and high dungeon.

Growing organic lettuce in Yuma makes sense. Helping American’s gain access to an abundance of organic dark leafy greens is one of the healthiest vegetables to end up on our supper table. This mighty vegetable holds the key to heart health and a disease-free life. It also rids us of the middleman, fattening animals for slaughter is complicating our fight to fix the climate emergency. If you don’t think of yourself as part of the problem, you haven’t been living quite guilty enough. Feel more passion to change, don’t accept your mindless desires, maybe our stomach is wrong.

Colorado River from Afar in Canyonlands

The Colorado River stretches 1400 miles from headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to where the last remnants that empty into Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. From start to end there are a vast complex overlapping community of stakeholders. These are the diverse other spokes in our food system, from fist fighting cowboys to addle appetite driven vegans, from irrational misinformed partisan hotheads to indigenous peoples that can trace their ancestors back to 20,000 years before present.

Abandoning representative government for an autocratic, command and control world where the unchecked power’s pick and choose between the well-connected and not so well connected won’t solve the American West’s water shortages. This anti-science bandwagon isn’t a good fit in civilization threatened by megadrought. We can’t invent water, we can’t imagine our way to abundance, we must learn to make the most of the water we have. Conservation and reclamation will help, and it is part of our mix of adaptations, but we’re heading for a far more consequential crisis, the dimensions and impacts are not going to be easy to come to terms with.

If you live in LA you’re back of your mind worried about wildfire, but more likely you’re real ache in your life has to do with your commute, what time your girlfriend is going to show up, how to get tickets to the Hollywood Bowl, you promised your heart throbs you’d go see Diana Krall.

If you are raising a family in King City in the Salinas Valley it is the high rent, the price of a gallon of gas matters, getting you newborn baptized is everything.

Hills covered in Mustard

Forty million acres will need to be removed from production, and what land remains in production will be refocused.  

None of this will be painless. I didn’t want to switch to a whole food plant-based diet. I didn’t make the change until I had to, and even then, what can I say, much of this path was difficult, I complained plenty, but I put my big boy pants on and did what was required, that my changes increased the odds of my survival, and if I didn’t change and had kept going the same way that there was trouble ahead.

Rural America’s politics has shot off and gone haywire. Our white rural Christians have latched onto the toxic politics of what remains of the Republican Party. If taxes from the urban professional class are to be used to help our agricultural sector through this transition the two America’s will need to sit down and have an honest conversation.

Voting rights should be at the top of that list. Ending income inequality needs to be on that list. If we reach across the isle to help the other side, we’ll want a full-throated affirmation that the best future for our country is a two party self-representative government.

Rural America needs to come to terms with a more emancipated modern woman. We need a less oppressive approach to living with half of our citizens.

Arizona’s Salt River

Rural gun regulations are not a good fit for urban America. Rural and urban America need to fix this problem. Blocking legislation in Washington DC needs to stop.

Adapting our agricultural sector to the realities of climate change will require changes in how and what we farm. There is no better place to fix the lethality of our diet than by changing to crops that will make us healthier and happier.

Expertise matters when sewing seeds or flying a plane. Let’s get the best ideas up to the front of the line and put all this bias and prejudice back on a barstool in a tavern where a customer can have their say but not tip the whole freaking experiment in democracy at risk.

America can do this, but first off, we need to agree to be more agreeable, that the other side has a right to exist, but it doesn’t have the right to grab hold of power and tyrannize everyone and everything that’s not the same as the people you are most familiar with.

Won’t be long now. Citizens living in the rural American West are about to go through some things and if there is any chance of survival it is being willing to cooperate with those more affluent urban citizens that are willing to step up and help. Megadroughts, climate emergencies, wildfires are the warning signs, the flashing red lights on our dashboard that our ecosystem is breaking down, that there is no more time for doing nothing, that for the sake of our survival we are all going to be asked to make some sacrifices as we adapt to this hotter and drier reality. We have to give to get.

American West Trickle Down

Dead Horse Point, Utah

Colorado River runoff is in climate change induced decline, Lake Powell is at 38% of capacity. Here is what is at risk. “Spanning parts of the seven states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming (Basin States), the Colorado River Basin (Basin) is one of the most critical sources of water in the West. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes (tribes), 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks.” All of the water allocations are regulated by the Law of the River.

Up in the Klamath River Basin there is a different drought dynamic. Both the Klamath and Colorado rivers because of the megadrought have allocation agreements that are impossible to meet. There has long been tension on the Klamath, this latest drought is just the most recent trouble. Because of the much more complex water law on the Colorado it is difficult for a disgruntled water user to put a face on their water crisis.

In Klamath Falls there are several convenient faces pointed out for blame. Top of the list are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Oregon Water Resources Board. Then predictably there are the indigenous people that have long lived in this basin, the tribes consist of the Modoc and the Yahooskin-Paiute people, known as the mukluks and numu. Non-indigenous citizens frustrations boil over, local sovereignty movements emerge, states rights advocates get their dander up, and talk of secession is floated in community meetups.

Molten Salt Towers Aglow

The problems on both river systems are identical, but on the Colorado River friction is spread out among 40 million. On the Klamath River basin the official population is 114,000, this is one quarter of one percent compared to the Colorado basin.The colossal Colorado’s economic impact on the region is enormous but it is this smaller river system the Klamath where matters other than economic may go off the rails with a bullhorn.

Here is the Law of the River on the Colorado. “The treaties, compacts, decrees, statutes, regulations, contracts and other legal documents and agreements applicable to the The Law of the River consists of allocation, appropriation, development, exportation and management of the waters of the Colorado River Basin are often collectively referred to as the Law of the River. There is no single, universally agreed upon definition of the Law of the River, but it is useful as a shorthand reference to describe this longstanding and complex body of legal agreements governing the Colorado River.”

Water activists on the Klamath who have had all of this years water cut to zero, with roots in ranching and farming need to put a face on their problems. Governors are picked on, Secretary of the Interior is hit, scientists from various agencies, to gain any traction the farmers and ranchers need a target for their frustrations.

The insurrection of January 6th has only cemented the impression something has gone haywire in our country. A few years ago the survival of our democracy wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen.

What we know with some degree of certainty is that there is enough water out here in the American West for residential use. It is the commercial use of the water, it is the farmers and ranchers that will struggle to thrive and expand as water allocations are reduced year by year, some years by drought, other years by the swelling population.

Demographic projections in decades ahead warn the Colorado River basin population will grow to 79 million by 2070. If you are from Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City or Las Vegas firsthand experience with explosive growth tells you this trains coming, no cow- all bull full steam ahead.

What can we done? Laws will need to rewritten. We’re going to need to get with the Department of Agriculture and rejigger crop subsidies, and that’s going to trigger a wave of tantrums. The titans of agriculture will resist but there are no easy outs, this David and Goliath story is an epidemic in our country and time has come to slay the beast. Our century old water laws are outdated, drought and the climate emergency have rendered these rules unworkable. You want a tip? Get a degree in water law.

Where water has been over promised we’ll want to pull acreage out of production. We’ll want federal dollars used to buy back land. We’ll want to rationalize what crops we plant and decrease the total number of acres planted. Regenerative farming methods will become common. Water intensive crops like almonds, alfalfa, and dairy will be relocated to water abundant regions of the United States. Grazing cattle will become impractical as summer temperatures soar. Last weeks heatwave was recording setting. In the Mojave I was driving between Las Vegas and Barstow in 118*F.

June 16, 2021 hotter than blazes

Funding for programs can be solved by use of a carbon tax. Where a rural community has been hit by the decline in fossil fuels we’ll want to develop programs that diversify the economies of these communities.

Differences have grown between urban and rural regions of the American West. Since the pandemic spawned the work from home movement we need to incentivize our digital workers to be sprinkled out across the countryside. Corporations should support their workers spreading out. Pressure on housing would decrease in our urban zones and perhaps prices in our rural communities would benefit from a more robust growing population.

Many pieces of what I am proposing are in the hands of Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress.

Factions that move populations by emotion, by fiery rhetoric, by putting an innocent face on this gigantic existential problem only slow down our ability to set our course for survival.

Sunrise over Searchlight, Nevada- Harry Reid’s hometown

I’ve been touring this region of the country since 1974. I’ve lived in the Verde Valley and farmed land in the Willamette Valley. I have hayed my own fields and loaded my own horse into my own trailer. I don’t take no backseat to anyone claiming they’ve earned some special rights or claim to be free to do whatever the hell they want to do. Frontier times are over and we will make do by cooperation and following rules.

My eyes have seen sunrises and sunsets that my camera can’t capture and my novels seldom do justice to, but I’m out here, constantly talking to folk, the janitors, teachers and horse whisperers. I get a fresh faced yo-yo champion to laugh at a trick dog’s stunt. I make camp in the loneliest corners of the Great Basin. I know hay farmers, barrel racers and organic strawberry growers. Much is unsettled and more turbulence is likely than less. Join with constructive groups, urge your political representatives to speak up about these matters, we can do this but not by tempest and tantrum. We’ll get by hard work and compassion. Saddle up partners we have a country to save.