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Phoenix Environmentalism: Part II

Last month's column dealt with diminishing public support for environmental activism, and suggested a need for reconstructing the environmental discourse. Some elements of such a reconstruction are suggested by considering the example of Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Both are growing rapidly; indeed, Phoenix is the fastest growing city in the United States. But both are in desert areas, raising significant water availability considerations. One would thus expect their growth to be moderated by, or at least sensitive to, water availability and other environmental issues, especially as many of the new arrivals are drawn by the area's natural beauty and recreational opportunities.

But this would be naïve. To begin with, neither city rises from a tabula rasa, to be first inscribed by modern sensibilities. Before Phoenix and Las Vegas, there was Los Angeles, growing from orange groves and its own desert to become a huge sprawl of a world city. Such urban systems are in fact instantiations of one of the most powerful mythic structures in a nation awash with myths: the optimistic, growth-oriented and libertarian mythos of the American West. Development and growth are inherent in the culture behind these cities, and any effective policy must reflect this reality. It is in this cultural context that questions of water often arise. The usual question is about availability, but this is over-simplistic, for the real question is whether water arises from "natural" or "human" sources. If “natural,” then resource limitations are immediate; if “human” then cultural dynamics (including deployment of various technologies) dominate.

Here Phoenix and Las Vegas tell riffs on the same story. Phoenix and Arizona generally, in part because of a long history of agriculture (and thus of water management within the very peculiar laws that govern water in the West), are actually in fairly good shape when it comes to water availability. In fact, for a long time the growth of Phoenix and its suburbs actually reduced water demand, because houses replaced thirsty crops of cotton. Even now, Phoenix has been able to sell some of its water to Las Vegas which, lacking an agricultural history, also lacked experience with water administration (and a portfolio of water rights). In social institutions, as in technology, there are important learning curves. Note that the legal ability to access water, not water itself, is critical: almost all surface flow in the American West is already completely allocated to different uses. Accordingly, what Phoenix gives to Las Vegas is temporary water rights, or the legal ability to appropriate certain amounts of water from, in this case, the Colorado River.

But surely water cannot be freely available in the desert, especially for cities so abundantly sprouting golf courses and swimming pools? Clearly, there are weaknesses in the provisioning system. In places around Tucson, for example, the ground has subsided as groundwater reserves were overdrawn, and the total amount of Colorado River flow allocated through water rights is greater than its average annual flow. But the greatest challenge to desert water is not rainfall, but politics: what limits Phoenix and Las Vegas is not so much the Colorado, but California. If one maps the flow of water required to keep Southern California cities and, especially, agriculture functioning, the network extends not just into Northern California, but across the entire Southwest; in particular, California’s water allocation from the Colorado is “senior” to Arizona’s, which means that any shortfall reduces Arizona’s allocation, not California’s.

Moreover, the long term water supply curve is governed by money and technology, not “nature”. Desalinization plants are expensive, but can produce unlimited amounts of fresh water (as well as salts requiring proper management). Thus, for example, the possibility of Arizona building desalinization capacity for San Diego or Los Angeles in exchange for additional Colorado River water rights for Phoenix has already been discussed. In the American West, in other words, water is a human system, and its long term availability is gated by culture, technology and economics, not rain or river flow.

This has several implications for environmentalism. First, it challenges the focus of many environmentalists on the “natural” dimension of resources such as water, with concomitant systemic underestimation of the importance of human components (especially technology) of resource cycles. This tendency leads to an over-emphasis on resource depletion in environmental discourse. Second, it reaffirms the tension between ideological environmentalism, ineffective in a culture such as Phoenix’s, and an effective environmentalism that understands, and works within, the delicate but powerful structure of its indigenous culture.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.

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