Tag Archives: Megadrought

Gila River of Changes

Over the last twenty thousand years ancient man─ North America’s first people─ established settlements across the desert Southwest. They were the Yuma, Pima, Papago, Zuni, the Pueblo, the Navajo, and Apache. There are over 570 distinct tribes across the United States. More recently in the last 2000 years one such group, the Hohokam farmed the Gila River Valley. Marcos de Niza, an ambitious Franciscan friar in 1529 boldly claimed these territories for Spain. Arizona was a remote and difficult terrain to travel through. Before 1850 few pioneers had attempted to settle this region, by 1912 Arizona was granted statehood, there were 217,000 hot and thirsty new US citizens.

Raod crossing Aravaipa Creek

Water rights were grandfathered in, stakeholders divvied up the resources, in the earliest years water rights were granted in an odd first right of use method, even if the use made no sense. In 1902 at John Wesley Powell’s urging the Bureau of Reclamation was formed in Washington and to be followed in 1980 by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. At present the agencies are struggling to keep up with the fast-moving global atmospheric changes. Even today given how hot tempers can run, to book a face-to-face appointment with an official from the Department of Water Resources you’ll need to state your business and identify who you are before being let into the building.

Then came this new century and with it this relentless twenty-year drought, drought, and more drought. Here we are in the midst of a climate emergency, with it come significant changes in precipitation patterns, hotter and dryer weather, add to all of that a swelling population, and the prospect of untangling this steaming hot mess of water shortages in court, this collision between the water have’s and the have-nots has brought us to the mother of all showdowns.

Arizona farmhouse

When you are in climate chaos, where water cutbacks are ordered, and you can’t─ you won’t comply, you’ve got seeds in the ground and your last dollar is at risk, your last shred of hope is hanging by a sunbeam, even with all that, sorry to say trouble is going to come find you.

Until now it has seemed reasonable here in the Gila River Valley to punch an extra well or two, maybe divert some water running in a channel, nobody is going to notice a little runoff, even if it is common knowledge an unauthorized diversion is straight up considered thieving and stealing. Some handful have a legal right to draw a certain amount of water, hardly anyone has an unrestricted right.

Farms and ranches are in a corner. Trouble will soon find the water grabbers, the trouble makers will find they’ve attracted a sheriff and the officer will come and padlock the gates to the irrigation canals shut, power company will cut electricity to the offending well pumps, one way or another if you cannot prove a right to the water you are going to be shutdown. You cut the lock, you hook a generator up to a well pump and a judge will be hold you in contempt, throw you in jail, and send your youngest born off to be educated at a local liberal university.

The Gila turns to the north and continues west where it enters the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The sovereign territory measures 1.8 million acres. It encompasses parts of three different Arizona counties and these sovereign lands as all other tribal lands were established by congressionally ratified treaties and at the time of their signing in 1868, were deemed irrevocable, and eternal. The Supreme Court has found that neither a President nor Congress can terminate these treaties. What comes to mind is the internment of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims by the Chinese. Whatever other awful conduct we might witness here in the United States abrogating a treaty with our sovereign tribes would be viewed by the world as a crime against humanity.

Sabino Creek

By 1935 the San Carlos Apache had to go to court over a dispute with the Gila River Irrigation District. “Despite the construction of Coolidge Dam and the attempt to use the storage capability of San Carlos Reservoir to satisfy all parties, the flow of the Gila River is nowhere near sufficient to fulfill all the rights adjudicated in the Globe Equity Decree. The Federal Court found that the Apache have the senior most rights that extend from Coolidge Reservoir and then east 140 miles to the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico. Farmers and ranchers’ members of the Gila River Irrigation District were overusing their water allotments leaving the Apache insufficient resources for their homeland. And there’s the rub, this isn’t just codified in law, it is as Al Gore might say, “this is the inconvenient truth.”

Recent action, in 2019, the tribe has been back in Federal Court fighting against with the excessive upriver water users. Water rights are nothing if not enforced.

To understand the problem let’s link the Department of Agriculture’s cotton subsidies to the water shortage. The Federal farm cotton subsidies line the pockets of a select lucky few farmers, the surplus cotton then brings all kinds of dislocation to foreign markets, fuel trade conflicts and cause every kind of economic, environmental and political problems. There are about 8100 cotton farmers in the United States, Arizona accounts for about 1000 producers. The only reason they are growing cotton is because it is subsidized, without this incentive the producers would immediately shutdown, USA grown cotton is not competitive on the global market.

Central Arizona Project delivers Colorado River water to cotton field

Between 1995 and 2020 the Department of Agriculture disbursed $40 billion to US cotton growers with a significant share of those funds ending up in the pockets of Gila River Valley producers in and around Safford, Arizona. The subsidy among other things incentivizes producers to plant on marginal land, and then grow the subsidized cotton with subsidized water, even in the midst of a megadrought, even though everyone knows that the crop isn’t even destined for domestic markets but instead will be sold to foreign markets. In other words, seven million Arizona citizens are involuntarily having their states water, water that belongs to all the citizens, that piece of the commons is being sucked out from under them by about 1000 producers that grow an unprofitable crop that the producers ship overseas knowing full well there is not a sufficient demand for cotton on the world market, or enough water to meet the needs of a growing state population.

In Arizona the water scarcity problem is severe, it is an emergency, it is threatening the collapse of key sectors of the economy. But agriculture isn’t just powerful, it is invincible, tends to vote to the right of the political spectrum but will vaporize any politician no matter the stripes that dares to untangle this out-of-control program. One point of view has it that to keep a lid on the peace it is better to go along than get in the way of this irrational farm program. Another point of view worries about the chaos mismanaging the water resources could have on the entire project called civilization. Everyone knows this is an incendiary issue, that the rural communities could not just lose their economic base, but they could become so radicalized that the agricultural regions of the state could be virtually ungovernable, that the circumstances could foment a collapse of what we know as regular order, that both the state and nation could be threatened. It really is that dire.

There are no profiles in courage in Arizona. Governor Doug Ducey has nothing to say, all the office holders know better and stay the hell back and let the courts take the heat.

Hay, alfalfa and cotton growers need a good dose of water scarcity regulation. None of the farms would make any kind of sense without the Bureau of Reclamations surrendering cheap to almost free water to the growers. The near free irrevocable access to water has only made matters worse, and not the least of it because the water is revocable, and a day of reckoning is near.

Department of Agriculture could facilitate selling and shipping out cotton farm equipment to more water abundant regions like east to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi for starters. Immigration reform would include increasing the number of farmworkers allowed into the country to handle the new food production.

Plant based meatless meat products like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat are scaling up to meet demand and depend on soy, corn and other crops to manufacture their products. Emerging from research and development is another new industry that is producing real meat in the laboratory─ it’s called lab meat. Competitive production costs are approaching par with conventional meat and within a few years you’ll begin to see beef, pork and salmon products in our grocery stores and restaurants synthesized by this remarkable advanced technology. Salmon and chicken grown in the lab will begin distribution in Northern California in early 2022.

Ajo sunrise…

The future is now, and it is arriving just as this megadrought is about to force its reckoning upon the stubborn lucky few water users. Scaling lab meat up in Arizona to meet consumer demand would be the smartest thing a community like Safford, Arizona could do. Add to this the benefit that this type of meat uses 90% less water and 90% less land and you’ve got opportunity running smack dab into feasibility. Remember factory farming livestock risks triggering the release of dangerous pathogens some that can become a threat to all of humanity such as has happened with Swine flu and Covid-19. Lab meat will require no antibiotics and so far, is proving to be one of the safest most efficient methods of production. I know, I know─ but does it taste good? Will consumers eat laboratory meat? So far so good. Most who have sampled Upside Foods based in Emeryville, California describe the product as delicious and indistinguishable from any conventional chicken they’ve tasted. There is no time or water to waste.

In the months ahead, they will scale their production facilities and go from 50,000 lbs. to 500,000 lbs. Fortunately laboratory meat eliminates the need to slaughter animals. Arizona’s cotton addicted farmers could convert fields to grains that laboratory meat uses and then set up Gila River Valley laboratory meat growing facilities to create jobs and opportunities for the state’s citizens. That’s how you respond to a global climate emergency, that’s how we introduce new products, safer, cleaner, more efficient products to a thriving nation of consumers.

There is every sign that we have the technology and know how to fix a broken climate system. Like it or not our coal fired power plants will be shuttered. The day of the internal combustion engine is ending. Natural gas furnaces are going to be replaced with electric powered heat pumps. If you’ve been on the free lunch, subsidy and price support bandwagon it isn’t like we are going to ditch you, we need you, and we can build a better new food production, transportation, and electric power system to meet the challenges we face in this exciting new century with the farmers and ranchers cooperation.

Sanford, Arizona citizens need our help, change is never easy, even when it is necessary. Witness the revolution taking place in transportation sector. Just three new automobile companies—Tesla, Rivian and Lucid are worth more than all the other auto manufacturers in the world combined. We’re at a critical tipping point, revamping our food system, reallocating water resources, all of these changes are part of our efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and to build a more resilient energy and food system. Time to stop building walls and it is time to start building a technological bridge to this new century.

Arizona River Cheat Sheet

The era of blasting billionaires by rocket ship into orbit is only the latest wrinkle in our jam-packed events calendar. This summer’s Southwestern monsoons were much less stingy than the previous below average years, but even still it wasn’t enough. Billionaires I wouldn’t describe so much as tightwads as finicky and prone to developing an aversion to taxes. The billionaire’s suffer mood swings, too much attention from honey-pots and an overinflated sense of entitlement. Maybe that’s just me, or have I missed those duty to country jumbo tax payments? I don’t think so.

Home along the Verde River

If you didn’t know that China burns half of all the coal in the world well now you do. Getting our Asian economic powerhouse to stop releasing these heat trapping greenhouse gases isn’t going to be a walk in the park or a night on the town. I mention this for a reason I will come back to. Before heading off might as well mention Fukushima and the stinking pile of rubble that mess continues to threaten all of humanity with and how just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This is a no brainer. Put the stinking Genii back in the bottle.

I hiked along the San Francisco River in New Mexico. Outside Glenwood after a mile and a half on a dusty trail you’ll discover the San Francisco Hot Spring beckoning you to remove you clothes and hop on in for a good long soak. The 157-mile river is the largest tributary to the Gila River. You wanted to know this right?

The mighty 648-mile Gila River cuts a path right through the heart of Arizona ending west in Yuma. Wait, you mean Arizona has a heart? Plenty and a big one too. What water remains at its confluence with the Colorado River, this gets a little complicated due to salting from irrigation, but what is left flows into the Colorado then meanders south into Mexico before emptying into the Sea of Cortez.

North of Silver City, in this other newfangled New Mexico the headwaters are fed from runoff from the Pinos Altos Range. We are talking Continental Divide alpine peak stuff here people; some water is destined for the Pacific, some travels east joins up with the Rio Grande emptying into the Gulf of Mexico on the Atlantic Ocean.

Wayfarers running the Verde

Let’s do some mansplaining about this river. On the brighter side of life is the glory of civilization that has grown up along the river’s banks. There are cowboys and cowboy hats, there are barrel racers and barrel racing loving cowboy hatted skirt chasers. All along the Gila River, up and down her banks there is a thriving farm and ranch culture. If you didn’t know and why should you, this important riparian habitat is in stress brought on by drought and under threat by changing times.

Our climate emergency has put most all of this ecosystem into hardship, and like I said or didn’t say, and I am saying now the revolution will not be televised because who in the hell is going to drive all the way out to this dusty corner of nowhere and report on a few thousand disaffected souls finding out that there is not a drop of water remaining to farm by. By the way─ that is one hell of a long sentence.

What I know about Arizona’s waterways comes from my living two years on the banks of the Verde River. In 1993-1994 with my wife and then 2-year-old daughter we moved from San Francisco to live along this watercourse. Our property was covered in mesquite, cottonwood and sycamore trees. Coyote, bobcat and javelina were common sights. Bald eagles, great horned owls and scarlet tanagers were regular visitors. Wolf spiders the size of raven’s hunt for supper here. You’ll discover you are sharing a very sentient world with the black shiny Arizona carpenter bees. At dusk you’ll see wood duck chicks follow mom up to nest safe from predators in the hollow of the tree trunk. You can pretty much get stung, stuck or made miserable by every form of thorn and sticker known to creation. Wild pig can be trouble and mountain lion once the first shot of a rifle goes off will be long gone soon thereafter.

Verde peekaboo view from deck

Verde Valley in Yavapai County cultivates hay and alfalfa. The Sinagua─ ancient’s first people, having lived here for thousands of years have been switching to growing Malt barley for beer brewers. Local corn is cultivated here. You’ll find some pecan orchards too. Over near Cornville there are enterprising winemakers making rustic Italian reds from grapes grown out of rock.

The river can go up and down, more down than up, and still the river does persist. I was living there when a 500-year flood came within an inch of our front door sill. We’d been warned to move our cars to high ground. We lollygagged imagining we’d have time, then all hell broke loose and after moving our cars we ran door to door to help neighbors who same as everyone was caught asleep at the switch. Not a soul alive could ever remember the river ever getting so high. On average the river flows at fifty feet wide maybe at best measures 600 cubic feet per second, what we saw was the granddaddy of gully washers, a river nearly one quarter mile wide river flow measured at 100,000 cubic feet per second, and well to a soul everyone felt that they were lucky just to be alive to tell what there is to tell about such an impactful flash flood. Unless you are a good audience these stories and photographs mostly illicit a shrug. Fine.

Native Agave also known as a Century Plant

My wife’s family has lived in the Verde Valley since 1969 when they pulled up stakes in Fairfax, California and struck out for a new rural high desert life. Hard to explain what kind of economy you’d find here. My brother-in-law made his living as a land surveyor. I worked events in Phoenix, got hired on at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, and traveled to Laughlin to work at the Flamingo as an opening act.

Being so close to the river our water well was not drilled deep. To avoid kidney stones, it was advisable to filter your water to remove the dissolved limestone. Casey my mother-in-law thought that was nonsense and took her chances. I was instructed in how to build a proper mesquite coal fire to use for barbecuing. In 1993 AT&T still had consumers by the throat and a call routed just 15 miles away cost $1.75 for a mere 3 minutes. Walmart had come to Cottonwood and most ordinary native citizens point to that event as the beginning of the end of a small business owner having even half a chance at scraping up a living.

The wife bought a thoroughbred named Maggie. I liked Maggie just fine, but this was not any ordinary kind of horse. Maggie knocked down fences as a regular reaction to her jumpy moods she’d fall into. Made the mistake of tying her up to a fence rail while saddling her up. Jerked the rail right off the posts and fell over backwards and made a mess of the saddle that had just been synched tight.

My mesquite wood fire cooking instructor

Sunday’s my mother-in-law and I would watch football from the colossal satellite dish array that had been setup between the mesquites. We both liked Joe Montana and football was fun in this era with all the winning all the time. Casey complained about cooking but most of all she believed it important to keep the men in her life fed. She had two sons, two sons-in-law, and one ex-husband who lived one block away, and they were maybe some kinds of best friends by now, hard to know what to call them, there existed a fondness for sure, but it was not any kind of endearment most people would understand.

By my reckoning the same quirky fated culture along the Verde River is much the same for the Arizonan’s living along the Gila River. There are more curmudgeons than most other places. Every kind of pickup truck known to mankind has come here. Paint fades, upholstery rots from the beating given  by the sun, but trucks here live-in suspended animation and hardly any rust out, there isn’t enough humidity, hardly any water at all. Turns out an arid climate is rust’s mortal enemy.

People build Earthships here. You’ll find adobe and strawbale construction. There are a lot of off grid types here. With this crowd you’ll find solar and wind turbines with battery storage. Slow pumps are used with solar panels to pump well water up for residential purposes. Satellite television remains common out here, but jumbo dishes are now gone and in their place, there are these demure setups. Four-wheel-driving is practically the only real fun you’ll find to do out here. Half the nutjobs arrive as birders the other half as militia members of one kind of fraternal order or another. Arizona’s rural farms and ranches are in for one hell of a drought beating. Just as everything else has changed, if you haven’t noticed things are changing plenty fast now, and a lot of the people living out in the furthest reaches of the Arizona desert are struggling to keep up with all that’s getting thrown at them. Electronic-computer controlled internal combustion engine powered pickup trucks are one thing but a fully electric powered work truck is almost unbearably odd. Chewing tobacco is still popular and now everyone is pumping on these personal computing devices they got stuffed in their shirt pocket. Pornography and titty bars are mortal sin and the high desert house of worship.

I’m plenty worried about these fragile riparian ecosystems. Worried what fate awaits this drought ravaged region. When it gets much hotter out here you won’t have to worry about growing crops, because crops won’t grow in such high heat. Maybe Miami, Florida will be overrun by the rising waters of the Atlantic Ocean, maybe some of us will see that day come, but by my mind and best estimate the climate emergency has already arrived full steam ahead in Arizona. Wildfires, drought and heatwaves have already provided all the evidence anyone needs to know that a very difficult set of decisions are ahead, unavoidable hard choices will need to be made, and how it was when your grandmother or grandfather first arrived here in the Southwest is nothing at all like is now. We just have to start reacting, put two and two together and come up with a plan. So far nobody has been thinking there was much to do.

The Verde River

Come January 2022 Arizona’s relationship with water is going to change. Water from the Colorado River will be shut down. That’s going to be the shock of this new century. I’m worried for folk down here, worried by a lot. I care about these parts. I do not wish to see the hard-working stiffs going bankrupt. The end of the line isn’t where the passengers get off, not in a pandemic, not in a mega-drought, not in the last chapter of a family’s hold on land they’ve worked for near a century or more. This is what a climate emergency means. It means you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing, you have to come up with a plan that no longer includes using all this water that no longer exists.

Glen Canyon Dam Meets Strangelove

Not so ancient foot

In New Mexico ancient human footprints have been discovered at White Sands National Park. Scientists have identified adolescent sized prints to 23,000 years before present. Our first people moved along the coastline netting fish for food while drifting south by sea craft. Insight into this migration is likely rendered impenetrable by the expanding ice sheet of 26,000 years ago that scrubbed away evidence of our first ancestors’ migration patterns.

Second route of the ancients was taken by traveling inland. Prior to the last glacial maximum, I’m speculating here, was likely about 30,000 years before present. This was a warmer and wetter American West. Massive lakes some hundreds of miles in length in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico created habitat for safe travel along the shore in floating vessels while hunting and gathering.

The Winnemucca Rock Art near Nevada’s Pyramid Lake dates back to 14,800 years before present. This is the earliest example of human created artistic behavior in North America. Much further north and dating back 23,000 years before present in the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves there is evidence of the first people having settled in this region of North America.

Mexico’s Chiquihuite Cave hints at human activity dating back 30,000 years before present.

Riparian of Arizona Santa Cruz River

Sixty miles southeast of Albuquerque there is dry lake bed and then further south is White Sands National Park. We haven’t any evidence of whether these first people arrived from the north or the south. What we do know is that it was warmer and wetter that the lakes were a source of fresh water and food. The Pueblo People are the descendants of these first immigrants.

Most intriguing is that these first people may have arrived, but it would be tens of thousands of years before they transitioned from hunter-gatherer’s and built permanent settlements.

Early man began to experiment with cultivating plants, corn or maize is the most well-known crop, but there was also potato, squash, beans, and sunflower.

Diné Homeland

The people named the Anasazi suddenly vanished from this region about 800 years before present. These first people had developed the pueblo and their abandoning the dwellings was thought to be the result of climate change and drought. New theories speculate that there is evidence of tension between tribes and potential of mass killings, enslavement, and cannibalism. The lack of water may have set in motion a more predatory behavior between the various groups settled in this region.  

Perching as they did on the cliffs appears to be designed as a fortress structure. The cliff dwellings were not built to withstand water scarcity. After the end of the last ice age, while the climate shifted from wetter to drier conditions no longer favored a people living in this region. The vast system of freshwater lakes begin evaporating and are gone in just a few thousand years.

A wave of immigrants then swept across the continent introducing Old World technology to a New World. Coal was burned to power the steam engine, then oil was refined to power the piston engine. There were sewers and water wells. By 1895 hydroelectric power stations began making electricity available to the masses.

A straight line connects the carbon based energy system of the Industrial Revolution to the climate emergency.

Traveling across the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona and New Mexico the evidence of our first people is scattered across a vast landscape. Genetic markers identify the Korean peninsula as the origin of these people. Navajo prefer the name Diné to identify the people of their nation.

The ancestors of the Diné have been in North America for tens of thousands of years. The new human inhabitants evolved with a climate that grew warmer and drier, at this same time period animals such as camel and mastodon vanished into extinction.

These first people began to fabricate cliff dwellings and whole villages, fields were cultivated and farmed diverting water from the adjacent rivers. The Diné describe water as a living spirit, that the rivers, lakes, sun and earth are key to unlocking the miracle of life.  

Waterways

As the Department of the Interior rolls out the non-carbon based renewable energy system for this new century Biden’s Build Back Better plans is to enlist the wisdom of our indigenous people in our effort to reimagine our economy.

The Industrial Revolution was powered by and is still dominated by use of fossil fuels. We’ve altered our climate and it is now clear that mankind has unleashed all manner of trouble upon itself. It is the culture of our first people who have lived here longer than any other people, that it is the Diné who have sought out a means of being here in harmony with the earth. For our world to survive we would be wise to enlist the talents of all our tribes, each part of our many people can contribute to this transformational journey.

Embracing a multicultural path to fixing our energy system is only one of many existential challenges confronting the American West. Wildfire, heatwaves, and drought are the tip of the spear to the changes bearing down upon this region.

Most urgent is the persistent loss of water flowing into the Colorado River. Constructing both the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam’s occurred during an era that was unusually wetter than at present.

Appointed by Bill Clinton former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Daniel P Beard in 2015 concluded that the time had come to remove the Glen Canyon Dam. What prevents this right decision from being taken? A set of interlocking stakeholders that receive subsidized water. The unfettered flow of the Colorado River water to western landholders is about to be shattered.

Beard dubbed this group of lucky water rights holders the water nobility. The senior most water rights holders have been allotted subsidized water worth thousands and thousands of dollars that they would then use to grow hay crops worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Water law is complicated but the problem it has created is not. Too much water is being wasted growing too many crops unsuited to this region’s climate. Members of the Water Nobility have outsized wealth created by receiving an irrationally bestowed entitlement. This is the people’s water, it is for all of us, not just the lucky few. But the current stakeholders will fight to keep what they’ve mistakenly come to believe is their water.

Diné farmland

What we’ll see play out over the next years are negotiations between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and our international neighbor to the south Mexico. Every stakeholder is going to demand more, and all will come away with less, some will lose access altogether.

The Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture will attempt to bring an end to subsidizing crops grown with subsidized water. The firestorm these changes setoff are going to be monumental. But the climate emergency is now upon us and with its arrival the American West finds itself struggling to divide up less and less to the point where there is no more water to divide up.  

Knowing full well that they will fight to the last drop, surrendering nothing, arguing over everything, never agreeing to anything, holding out as the American West is brought to the brink. This is the tragedy of the commons playing out before our very eyes. The pending negotiations over how to share what water remains in the Colorado River does not yet dominate the headlines, but this crisis even if it rains this next season is going to pit state against state all too soon.  

Postscript… I’m preparing a new plot to a comedy. Some pieces of the water crisis will be folded into this struggle. I see this as Little Big Man and Dr. Strangelove doing battle with the Monkey Wrench Gang. I remind myself while trying to plot this story that Hayduke and Mandrake are both still very much alive!

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.