In January, an Arizona desert community found itself in a nightmare situation: The water was cut off.
Rio Verde Foothills is made up of about 2,000 homes. For years, many of them relied on water trucked in from the nearby city of Scottsdale. It gets water from the Colorado River. But the river is drying up. Scottsdale says it has to save water for its own residents.
The southwestern United States has experienced drought for more than 20 years. Water supplies are shrinking. Arizona can pump water from underground. But that can’t provide half of what’s needed. Meanwhile, thousands of new residents arrive every year, and more communities like Rio Verde Foothills are built. There isn’t enough groundwater for all those homes.
Some experts say the solution is to import water from outside the state. One idea is to build a desalination plant on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. It would remove salt from the water and pump that water to Arizona through a pipeline. Supporters say this could provide water for decades.
Critics see a different future: environmental destruction. Margaret Wilder is a professor at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. She warns that big projects like this one could be used to justify “much more unsustainable development in the desert in the future.”
Environmentalists say the desalination project is bad for the planet. Some of the salt taken out of the Sea of Cortez might end up back in the ocean, harming wildlife. The pipeline would damage land where people and animals live. And the desalination process uses lots of energy. This would create greenhouse gases, making the drought even worse.
Desalinating water would likely come at great cost to Arizonans. Cities pay about $50 to $150 for 326,000 gallons. That’s enough for a family of three in Phoenix for a year. Desalinated water could cost 20 times as much.
Environmentalists say the government should try to cut water demand rather than increase supply. That would mean promoting water-saving measures and limiting how many homes are built.
Wilder hopes people will understand the risks of endless expansion into the desert. “We need to start asking questions when people present us with these unproblematic, carefree solutions to the water problem.”
Let It Rain
People in Tucson, Arizona, have found a solution to the city’s water shortage: rainwater. Thousands of households are collecting it. They’re using it for cooking, for drinking, and in their gardens.
Government leaders have taken notice. The city now requires publicly built roads to capture stormwater. Tucson also helps residents pay for equipment that captures rainwater for home use. —By Brian S. McGrath