Tomorrow I leave with MCC on a pilgrimage to the “borderlands” in Arizona. It is a well-worn trail blazed by caring advocates over decades, most recently by the former Director of MCCUS, Ron Byler.
My parents used to live in Arizona, right on Lake Havasu. To get to their mobile home we had to cross the famous London Bridge. Industrialist Robert Paxton McCulloch bought the bridge from London in the 60’s when the city was going to replace it and reassembled it in the middle of nowhere. Now it is one of Arizona’s main tourist attractions.
Talk about infrastructure projects!
Lake Havasu is a gigantic reservoir backing up behind Parker Dam, a project of the Bureau of Reclamation between 1934 and 1938. The dam builders had to dig down so far to reach a bedrock foundation, Parker became the deepest dam in the world. The reservoir holds water for two of the desert-defying aqueducts that make Southern California and Southern Arizona possible
The Colorado River Aqueduct feeding Southern California, where I grew up, was created by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of eleven cities, including Los Angeles, Burbank, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Anaheim and San Bernardino. The cities joined together to ensure a water supply for their booming communities, which had everything a paradise could want, except adequate water. It is quite a feat which includes the 13-mile-long San Jacinto Tunnel, which took six years to build.
The Central Arizona Project Aqueduct came later after Arizona gained access to the lake through court battles. The backbone of the aqueduct system runs about 336 miles from Lake Havasu to a terminus southwest of Tucson. They called it complete in 1993 even though it has yet to supply water to several Native American distribution systems.
Unsustainable desert cities
Every time we flew into Las Vegas to get our rental car to drive to “Havasu,” I am pretty sure I said, “What in the world is that city doing there?” Without the giant Hoover Dam creating Lake Mead (also damming the Colorado River) the Luxor Pyramid and those miles of tract homes would be impossible. None of the cities of the Southwest are sustainable with only their local water resources which are now only trickles, for the most part.
Phoenix seems even worse than Las Vegas. In his 2011 book Bird on Fire, the NYU sociologist Andrew Ross branded Phoenix the least sustainable city in the world [see Guardian article]. But it kept growing. In 2017 Phoenix passed Philadelphia to become the fifth largest U.S. city. Due to climate change, external water resources are becoming even more unreliable. The Colorado River is drying up. The Western drought has been in the news for the past five years. Westerners were thrilled last week when a bomb cyclone storm dumped snow on the Sierras and promised some water for their reservoirs. The snow in the Rocky Mountains, which feeds the Colorado River, has been up to 70% lower than average, recently. Flights out of Phoenix airport have been grounded because of the extraordinary heat (which is saying something in Phoenix!)– after 116F officials have to make a judgment call about whether the air too thin to take off safely. Putting an urban “heat island” in the middle of desert keeps Phoenix even hotter. Living in Southern Arizona is living on the leading edge of climate change disaster.
The way the U.S. does capitalism makes endless sprawl seem reasonable even if water sources to not presently support it. So Bill Gates purchased land outside Buckeye a few years ago, 36 miles from downtown Phoenix, with plans to build a smart city the size of Tempe. More cars, more electricity, more waste and a need for more water.
Greater Phoenix is good at recycling waste water, but most of it is used for cooling the Palo Verde nuclear power plant to the west of the city, the largest in the US and the only one not on its own body of water. But on the other side of the ecological balance is the fact that the water department is Arizona’s biggest electricity consumer, mainly because it has to pump the water uphill from the Colorado River along miles of canals into Phoenix and Tucson. Most of the electricity it uses comes from the heavily polluting, coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in the north of the state.
The new eco-apartheid
I will spend the night in my brother’s gated community near Tucson. So I will get the feel for how the wealthier people experience the Arizona Sun Corridor. I hope I don’t have an Elysium flashback when I head south toward the border.
Andrew Ross warns of an “eco-apartheid,” whereby low-income neighborhoods on the more polluted south side of the Salt River (which once flowed vigorously through the city of Phoenix and is now a rivulet) are less able to protect themselves from the heat and drought than wealthier citizens. “There’s a stark disparity,” he says. “The resource havens, with their hybrid cars, their solar panels and other green gizmos; and the folks on the other side struggling to breathe clean air and drink uncontaminated water. It’s a prediction of where the world is headed.” I was reminded of moving to San Diego and experiencing to change in atmosphere between desertified Tijuana and water-sprinkled San Diego.
Maybe the handwriting has been on Arizona’s wall for a long time. Ross tells about the Native people named “Hohokam” (“used up”) by archaeologists. They were the original irrigators of the Arizona Sun Corridor. Their society, numbering an estimated 40,000, collapsed in the 1400’s right before the Spanish arrived. Researchers generally believe their advanced civilization fell apart over power struggles related to scarce water.
Climate change is going to result in more immigrants showing up at the border, more income disparity, and more fighting. Our era is an important one for Christians to build resilient communities that not only survive but help others thrive.