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home : opinions : commentary May 24, 2016

6/1/2013 1:05:00 PM
My Turn: If not now, when do we develop our ‘water ethic?’
Chris Hoy

In her book, “Blue Revolution — Unmaking America’s Water Crisis” (Beacon Press, 2011), award-winning journalist and environmental author Cynthia Barnett describes in detail the unsustainable way we are using our most precious natural resource and then declares that a new national water ethic is called for if we are to avoid a future catastrophe: “America needs nothing less than a revolution in how we use water.

We must change not only the wasteful ways we consume water in our homes, businesses, farms and energy plants, but also the inefficient ways we move water to and away from them. This revolution will bring about the ethical use of water in every sector. Such an ethic is as essential — and as possible — as past awakenings to threats against our environment and ourselves on the large scale, the way we halted the use of DDT and other deadly chemicals; in our communities, the way we stopped tossing litter out car windows and trashing public parks; and, at the family level, the way we got used to setting out recycling bins alongside the garbage.”

In addition to our unconsciously wasteful use of water, “Blue Revolution” points to a number of factors that are nudging the country toward critical water shortages (all relevant to our region): exponential increases in population (sharply increased demand); climate change (decreased supply along with increased demand); and the fact that these changes are coming at us very quickly.

Unfortunately, our natural-resource planning and decision-making apparatus is not equipped to deal with rapid change, particularly in the arid Southwest. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently published a paper titled, “When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?” The authors, a marine physicist and a climate scientist, quantified the water-storage risks to the largest reservoir in the United States and said they were “stunned” not only by the magnitude of this problem, but also by how rapidly it was approaching.

Barnett and others have pointed out that the primary reason Americans believe that we will always have plenty of fresh water is the persistence of “The Illusion of Water Abundance.” We learn in elementary school that two-thirds of the surface of our planet is covered with water. So how could we ever run out of the stuff?

We could run out of time! “The Illusion of Water Abundance” is only one part of this complex problem. The other part could be called “The Illusion That We Have Plenty of Time to Resolve This Issue.” There is credible evidence that Lake Mead is headed toward a significant near-term reduction of the amount of water in storage, yet many people cling to the hope that we have more than enough time to solve not only that vexing water problem, but many others, too.

“Blue Revolution” demonstrates how a “water ethic” can be an effective solution by using site-specific examples (San Antonio, Texas; Monterey, California; Singapore) to show that if a water ethic is embraced at all levels of a community — including government officials willing to make the necessary changes to inadequate state policies and water laws — it can remedy even serious threats to water resources.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the communities the author uses as examples did not adequately anticipate the serious problem that was headed their way nor do any useful advance planning. They waited until the last possible moment to act, always the most expensive and least enduring response.

Barnett makes the point that every region is unique and therefore must create a customized water ethic that reflects local conditions. But she does mention two universal concepts.

First, avoid overusing aquifers and surface waters and, at the same time, try not to repeat “fixes” used in the past that result in unintended consequences for future generations (more and deeper wells, pipelines transporting high-cost water from remote sources).

Second, leave as much environmental water (aquifers, wetlands, and rivers) in place as possible.

And finally Barnett reminds us that citizens will not embrace a water ethic unless everyone in the community of stakeholders is on board, all of us in the boat, rowing as a team. A water ethic cannot be defined solely by science or law or economics. To be effective, the definition must include our beliefs, our motivations and, above all, our collective values.

The Citizens Water Advocacy Group, the Verde River Basin Partnership and other water-focused organizations have begun to do this work but we need more voices at the table. We need you.

Chris Hoy is president of the Citizens Water Advocacy Group. Submit your questions and comments to info@cwagaz.org.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2013
Article comment by: How about others ethics ?

"we' on this side of Mingus can work on our ethic all we like... while this is taking place over the hill- perhaps the city working to reduce the density and increase the open space of the trust land over here isn't so bad after all... compared to 100 acres of concrete and water gulping sod or grass!

Splitting the WAC leaves the door open for more of this as time passes.


"Annexation of 247 acres of James Deep Well Ranch land near the Prescott Airport was the topic of discussion at a City Council public hearing on Tuesday.
One of the assumptions was that the land, which is near the Pioneer Parkway/Willow Creek Road/ Highway 89 intersections, would one day be the site of a youth sports complex that would feature 104 acres of soccer and softball fields, basketball courts, and dormitories."

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013
Article comment by: leave it up to gary c. to jump on a bandwagon -

whats the term- never let a 'disaster' go to waste?

we get it GC.. .you really don't like trash on the roadside. your service is appreciated (and at times paid for)

but your cause de' celeb isn't really germane to the topic at hand.

Posted: Thursday, June 6, 2013
Article comment by: Gary Chamberlain


You may have the details on water but you need to do more research on highway litter.

What do you think is in all of those 1,000's of Adopt-A-Highway litter bags picked up in the Verde Valley every year and how much of the trash and chemicals contained in them ends up in the Verde River?

Your issues on water are very much appreciated.

Gary Chamberlain
"Point Man" FVUSA

Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Article comment by: Very interesting... Pacific Decadal Oscillation ?

Could it be that a large portion of this is related to the natural changes in weather patterns?

The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a pattern of change in the Pacific Ocean's climate (see climate change). The PDO is detected as warm or cool surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, north of 20´┐Ż N. During a "warm", or "positive", phase, the west Pacific becomes cool and part of the eastern ocean warms during a "cool" or "negative" phase, the opposite pattern occurs. It shifts phases on at least inter-decadal time scale, usually about 20 to 30 years.

If you review the graph at the link you will notice a rise and fall that coincides pretty well with the issues we are facing. If the historic trend bears out we are a 4 to 6 years from 20 or 25 years of an increase in precipitation.

If we only focus on ourselves and don't include the wider reaching global aspect of this then how ethical are we being?

Getting scared into making rash decisions now may have negative effects far into the future of we don't do a little critical thinking.

Appreciation to a commentor on the "verde river" marketing... err... facebook account, for posting this information.

Notice that this type of info is never mentioned by those that would have you think that 'every drop of water we drink is one our grand children will never see'.

Does this mean we ignore that we live in an arid climate, of course not... but we should also not be running around like our hair is on fire and lambasting anyone who thinks that planning for growth that is inevitable is a good idea.


Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Article comment by: Water what?

Even if water management were America's prime concern, an American water ethos wouldn't top my Verde Valley action list.

Before trying to get "all of us in a boat, rowing as a team," community leaders need to determine which water plan will take the area to which destination. That requires expert input and analysis, not consensus. Once there is a presentable case for where each boat is likely to arrive, then we can discuss which destination is someplace most of us want to go.

Sorry, John Bond. However elitist, Mayor Von Gausig's approach makes more sense to me than Paul Hobbs's or Chris Hoy's.

I'm tired of meetings full of data I can't confirm, refute, or integrate, drenched with platitudes most desert dwellers have known since before they were born. I'm tired of "leaders" asking me what I want to hear. Until the planners have actual plans that can be studied, compared, and critiqued, there's no point the rest of us climbing aboard. We'll just row ourselves into someone else's vested interests.

Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Article comment by: @ Chris Hoy

Are you sure Cynthia Barnett's book cites Singapore as an example of communities that "... did not adequately anticipate the serious problem that was headed their way nor do any useful advance planning´┐Ż"?

The island city-state of Singapore has been mitigating its monsoon flooding, sea incursion, and lack of fresh water problems since its days as a British Crown Colony. It's tried sea walls, conservation edicts with criminal penalties, super-strict building codes, various drainage & reservoir configurations, and desalinization projects. Most recently, its government completed a $2 billion push for more of the same. If advance planning and massive spending, in and of themselves, were the solution to inherent hydro-catastrophes, Singapore should now be ready for a global meltdown or another ice age, whichever comes first in the next 200,000 years.

However, even assuming you misremembered some of Ms. Barnett's examples, the only thing that has worked consistently for Singapore in the last 100 years has been elevating buildings above maximum flood levels, as the natives did before the British arrived, and importing fresh water to sustain the island's population (now a staggering 5.2 million in a 710 square kilometer area).

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Article comment by: human nature to blame ?

people tend to congregate in nice places, so nice places tend to attract more people.

it's basic science theory, like beget's like.

so when people mourn the loss of 'small town feel' they are forgetting that it's all relative. i am sure there were folks here before most of us that were happy as clams until more people saw how happy they were.

so unless all of the people lamenting the four letter word 'growth' (i know 5 letters but might as well be a 4 letter curse word) are up to the task of making this place unlivable in order to re-establish their pecking order... then you might as well be spitting into the wind.

nice places are nice... but who gets to decide who can stay or who can go?

why not just make the best of a wonderful place rather than spend all the time wishing it would never change.

be happy we are only dealing with a possible chance of a slight reduction in available water, while entire cities are decimated with one tornado back in tornado alley...

do your best to save water... stop leaks and conserve... but don't expect to get hit with falling sky anytime soon, contrary to the opinion of some.

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Article comment by: Before The Well Runs Dry

For five years I have been very careful in the amount of water I apply to my pastures...to the detriment of my pastures as I have had to buy more hay than I would like. My neighbors have nice lawns, green pastures and don't spend money on hay. Guess I'd better use what water I have now before the developers and builders try to give it away because it is part of the aquifer.
Yeah, I hate growth. It is getting harder and harder to find a small town that stays a small town. I could go on and on, but I think you get the message. I use water to grow food. I use land to grow food, not houses. Times for tomorrow are not looking good.

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Article comment by: m J

Re: John A. Bond
ahhhhh yes..... another deeply insightful post.....
and sooooo well thought out too....

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Article comment by: John A. Bond

@ Doug Van Gausig:

Your post is pure, unadulterated poppycock! Period.

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Article comment by: nutso obviously has not read a paper or attended a meeting or worksession lately-

the city of cottonwood has been working towards injection wells for some time and even clarkdale has mentioned it.

perhaps a direct call to any of the municipalities would clarify that issue for you... please let us know what you find...

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Article comment by: nutso fasst

"When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?"

Lake Mead going dry is about as likely as political activists refraining from using false fears to push their agendas.

I've heard the doom and gloom prognostications before. Lake Mead hit its lowest level since its initial filling in 1956 at 1,082 ft. above sea level. In 1957 it began a rapid refilling, then dropped again in 1964. In 1983 it reached the highest level ever at 1229 ft. above sea level, topping the spillways in an immense waterfall. By 2010 it had dropped to the 1956 level, and since then has been slowly rising again. All of which raises the question: who funded the Lake Mead study?

Sustaining the Verde River base flow while pumping water from the Big Chino aquifer to hydrate Prescott will require mitigation. There are enough studies to show this to be true, and there's a paid-for model ready to run. So why are the SRP, Prescott, and Prescott Valley spending $4.32 million for another study and another water-movement model, and not on ways to infuse more of the water that currently runs off as damaging floods into the aquifer?

A similar question applies to the Verde Valley aquifer. Why are sewage treatment plants in Clarkdale and Cottonwood discarding purified water from effluent into the Verde River instead of pumping it uphill to recharging wells from which it can trickle down and be reused?

Posted: Monday, June 3, 2013
Article comment by: Does the Town of Clarkdale not hold the USGS up as the be all end all?

Do they not trust the data? Does the VRBP doubt the data? Do thy condone multiple independent studies over a larger regional approach?

How much of this water hype is more like marketing to see who can be the bigger conservator?

Will the Verde river become the next fossil creek and be loved to death by being overused as a marketing tool to attract consumers to locations with otherwise slim commercial offerings?

What will keep it from becoming the next salt river and attracting all the folks from the valley of the sun to the valley of the green. this will give them a chance to float in the water they will eventually water their golf courses and fill their pools with at least?

So many questions indeed... the quest to preserve it could lead to its demise- how sadly ironic.

Posted: Monday, June 3, 2013
Article comment by: Paul Hobbs

These are great questions Jane Moore.

Which should give us a sense of urgency to answer the question ASAP about safe yield.

Defining the problem is the first step in solving it.

Posted: Monday, June 3, 2013
Article comment by: Doug Von Gausig

Mr. Hobbs has spelled out almost exactly the path that the Town of Clarkdale is taking in its "Clarkdale Water Resources Management Study." The town is first working with an independent hydrologist to define the resource - how much water do we have and where is it? Then we will calculate the demand for water now and in the future - how much water will we need for future populations, and how much is necessary for quality of life? Then we will, through a public process, define the possible paths that can lead us to sustainable use of our water. Finally, the Town Council, with public input, will implement the strategies that will produce a sustainable water supply for our town. In all this, the first and most important "customer" for water is the Verde River, and the first tenet of the study is "first, do no harm to the Verde."

The primary question we will be answering is "Can we live within our means, and what will it take for us to do so?"

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