Can Tucson Survive Climate Change?

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March 11 2014 7:39 AM

The Thirsty West: Can Tucson Survive Climate Change?

The desert city is low on water, with a booming population.

Saguaro cactuses stand guard over Sabino Canyon near Tucson, Arizona in the midst of a rare winter rainstorm.
Saguaro cactuses stand guard over Sabino Canyon near Tucson, Ariz., during a rare winter rainstorm.

Photo by Eric Holthaus

TUCSON, Ariz.—For decades, Tucson was arguably the getaway for anybody who thought he or she was anybody. From Bette Davis to Clark Gable, they came for the sun and the privacy. Tucson was small back then. When the city’s premier resort—the Arizona Inn—was built in the 1930s, it was considered to be on the edge of town.

Then came the water, which changed southern Arizona, the Southwest, and the country forever.

The concrete city of Tucson now extends for miles in all directions, with the Arizona Inn something of a nostalgic oasis at its heart. Pima County, a vast tract of desert about the same size as the state of Massachusetts, is now home to more than 1 million people.

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Today’s Tucson is almost unrecognizable from the sleepy desert town of ages past. Arizona’s five C’s­—cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper—have transformed the region’s economy, thanks to Herculean efforts to farm the desert and to enact pro-growth policies in urban areas. But increased water pressure due to climate change is now making each of those five C’s obsolete. Case in point: A proposal for a massive copper mine south of Tucson has been vigorously debated, with water being at the heart of the opposition’s case.

Humans and dry places aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. People have lived in southern Arizona continuously for millennia. But let’s be honest: The desert wasn’t meant for this many people. (Los Angeles, I’m looking at you … )

These days, migratory “snowbird” retirees have flooded in from all corners of the country, but their tax dollars—like their RVs—are seasonal. Few people enjoy the increasingly scorching summers in southern Arizona. Not surprisingly, the seasonality of Tucson’s population has led to an unstable economy.

Before the housing crash, Tucson was one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. Since then, the area has seen some serious reversion to the mean. Tucson is now one of the poorest big cities in the country with a per capita income of slightly more than $20,000. Tattoo parlors, seedy dive bars, and gas stations seem to make up the bulk of the retail establishments. There are few sidewalks, so The Walking Dead–esque scenes of people stumbling through the street at all hours of the day or night are commonplace. Tucson is "off-the-charts poor" and getting worse.*

I have never felt more depressed by the environment around me as I have been living in Tucson. A strong runner up would be Baku [Azerbaijan].

Despite the burst bubble, the region’s population is expected to double in the next 30 years or so to a mind-boggling 2 million people. All with less water.

As a city on the frontlines of the water crisis, Tucson is a place to watch as the anthropocene begins to impart a warmer and drier climate. Things are going to have to change. And the sooner they do, the better.

This month, I’m traveling the West to explore the effects of the drought. As I mentioned in the introduction to the series, Arizona’s modern boom was made possible largely by water from the Central Arizona Project. The Colorado River was diverted into the desert, and agriculture and urbanization has flourished in one of the driest places in the United States.

Tucson was my home for two years and my wife’s home for six. We got our dog Charlie from a rescue there. We were married last June at a friend-of-a-friend’s farm south of town. We know the place. We’re invested. When I returned to town earlier this month, I caught up with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who recently won a landslide victory in a campaign focused on righting Tucson’s sinking ship. His goal: to rebrand the city as an ecotourism destination.

This is a man who knows that his city’s future is tied to water, perhaps more than any other location in the United States—and he also knows what he’s up against. The day we spoke, it was announced that this has been Tucson’s hottest winter on record. As we settled in to his top-floor conference room overlooking the city, he joked about the recent warm weather. In a gruff mock-Texas accent, he quips: “There ain’t no climate change here.”

Slate: I have to ask you: What keeps people here?

Rothschild: Well, people have been here continuously for 4,000 years. What drew people here was a running river. There were two, actually: the Rillito and the Santa Cruz. Those rivers were still here up until 100 years ago. They're dry now, but we’re working to bring them back.

It's a beautiful place to live. It's not just the climate; it's the surrounding area. We're surrounded by four mountain ranges and a unique desert, a tropical desert. We get 11-12 inches of rain per year, which is right on the edge of what defines a desert.

Slate: A lot of Tucson residents are transplants, like I was. How do you work with new residents to change their water-wasting ways? A welcome packet with cactus seeds?

Rothschild: If folks move from other parts of the country, they’re probably coming at least partially for the sun. Even if they move from Phoenix, where they still grow lawns, they’ll quickly learn we do things differently here. If we are going to continue to thrive, water is our most precious resource. We have to have huge efforts on water conservation and water preservation.

One of our highest priorities is education. We have a public information campaign: You are in a desert. Peer pressure is something that does come into play here.

We’re also thinking ahead. At a cost, we have purchased our full allocation of Central Arizona Project (CAP) water and have been recharging it into our groundwater system. Every two years we are recharging one year's worth of potable demand. That's a huge accomplishment. I'm not sure anywhere else is doing that. And quite frankly, as mayor, I’m as proud of that as anything.

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