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Brandon Loomis has been an environmental reporter at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix since November 2012; he previously worked at other news outlets including the Salt Lake Tribune, Anchorage Daily News and Idaho Falls Post Register. Loomis won the 2012 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment and the 2013 Best of the West Prize for Growth and Environmental Reporting. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska and was a 1993-94 Ted Scripps Graduate Fellow at the University of Michigan.
What follows is a series of stories that Brandon Loomis reported on while based at the Diederich College of Communication and as an O’Brien Fellow during the 2014-15 academic year. Published in The Arizona Republic, the series includes trips to the Rocky Mountains, South America and elsewhere – and will explore how climate change threatens one of Arizona’s vital water sources; what steps Arizona and the rest of the region will have to take to adapt; how the river’s other resources, from wildlife to hydropower, will suffer; and how this is a problem for rich and poor in arid regions around the world.
In this first installment, Loomis and Republic photographer Mark Henle traveled to Utah and Nevada to examine what could be in store for Arizona. Marquette student Patrick Leary, who has been working with Loomis, produced a video for the package.
Las Vegas – Welcome to the future, where every drop of Colorado River water is guarded and squeezed. Only here, in the city that gets 90 percent of its water from the fickle and fading river, the future is now. The vast and highly urbanized Southwest, built on the promise of a bountiful river propped up by monumental dams, is up against its limits. Already tapped beyond its supply, the river is now threatened by a warming climate that shrinks its alpine source. To support fast-growing urban populations in a time of dwindling supply, the Southwest is due for rapid and revolutionary changes.
St. George, Utah – Officials in this fast-growing Utah city say they need more water if it is to thrive. The water is, for now, local, from the Virgin River Valley. But water officials say it’s not enough for the future of Utah’s warm southern growth engine.
Everything you need to know about the southwestern U.S. water crisis.
Baker, Nevada – Rancher Tom Baker stood in the marshy pasture beside one of the few oases that have kept his family ranching cattle across the Utah-Nevada line near Great Basin National Park. Cows romped and chewed in the green island surrounded by a sea of brittle brown greasewood. Baker shook his head in disgust. “To think you’re going to take all the water out of the ground (to build) a few more blocks in Las Vegas,” he said, practically spitting out his words.
For this second installment of the project, Loomis and Arizona Republic photographer David Wallace traveled to South America and to Colorado to find parallels and lessons in areas highly dependent on its mountain snow and ice water: the Andes and the Rockies. This reporting provides a global perspective on the Southwest’s local problem. When it comes to arid regions at risk of going even drier in a warmer world, we’re hardly alone.
Huaraz, Peru – The worst is yet to come to the Andes, but local subsistence farmers – they whose Incan ancestors brought the world cultivated potatoes and quinoa – already say the warming climate has limited their options. Some glacier-fed alpine streams have peaked with the increased ice melt and are now draining in an apparently terminal spiral.
Arapaho National Forest, Colorado – Twin climate-driven forces are robbing the Southwest’s most precious natural resource. First, the Continental Divide peaks that gather and store crucial moisture as snow in winter are stacking up less of it than what Southwest farms and cities need. And second, what snowpack does accumulate is melting sooner than in years past, a loss accelerated by the sunbeam-absorbing red soil that desert winds whip up from increasingly dusty lowlands and deposit on snowy slopes.
Hotchkiss, Colorado – Denver Water, the state’s biggest municipal supplier, insists coexistence is possible. Yes, Colorado’s urban core needs more water to grow, and it proposes to pull some more of it out of other Colorado River headwaters through the Moffat Tunnel. But that plan would include a major reservoir enlargement east of the Rockies, allowing the agency to hold several years of the new flow from a wet year, and to resist drawing from the Colorado during dry years. Beyond the state line, though, more water flowing toward Denver in any year means less to refill lakes Powell and Mead over time. It’s water that Colorado is legally owed, but that the sinking reservoirs can’t spare.
Leupp, Arizona – A lifetime of declining snowfall on the Navajo Reservation is making an already unforgiving desert landscape increasingly uninhabitable.
La Paz, Bolivia – Shoemaker Benjamin Burgoa Mamani remembers arriving here from the country to a squatter’s settlement of adobe brick shacks where hundreds like him shared a single well.
Bombay Beach, California – The Southwest’s worsening water shortage will make saving the Salton Sea difficult, because any fix requires water from an over-stressed Colorado River. But letting it go could send severe dust pollution into neighboring valleys and kill off millions of migratory birds whose historic natural stopovers have long since been drained.
Los Angeles – Californians aren’t letting their water crisis go to waste. After helplessly watching their mountain reservoirs sink into mud, many like Raymond Lobjois have made drastic changes that will forever shrink their consumption. When Gov. Jerry Brown came calling for 25 percent emergency cutbacks statewide starting this summer, Lobjois was already there and beyond.
Yuma – Smoke rising from groves of lemon trees offers one dramatic visual clue to Arizona’s increasingly complex water future: Groves here are going fallow, for a price, to test how much moisture farmers could spare for urban development.
Milwaukee – As the Southwest bakes under years of drought and strains to stretch its water supply into the future, the Upper Midwest is starting to see its luck. The same waterways that transported America to industrial glory in the past century are now a different kind of hot commodity for the next one.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then Israel is the frugal grandmother of water self-sufficiency. The parched nation with too little natural water for its people was innovating and conserving for decades before the southwestern U.S. faced the long-term water imbalance it now must overcome.
Arizona has to change its ways. Dry and getting drier as the climate trends warmer, the state faces important decisions in water policy. Either Arizonans and their representatives will shift how they use and secure water, experts agree, or they will suffer.
Lima, Peru – Improbable as it sounds, residents on hillsides where it almost literally never rains are spreading mesh bands that look like densely woven volleyball nets between poles. The nets catch the passing fog, which drips moisture into a waiting pipe and barrel.
Santa Catalina Island, California – A tourist town off the Southern California coast is finding out this year. Avalon, on Catalina Island, 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles, survives on what water it can capture from the sky and sea, plus palletloads of bottled water.
Las Vegas – Tamarisk, also known as salt cedar for its destructive tendency to draw soil salts to the surface, lines hundreds of miles of the river’s banks and tributaries. At least a quarter-million acres of the reedy bushes have been mapped across the Colorado basin, all spreading and displacing native vegetation in the decades since Americans brought them from Asia to block windand control erosion.
Next up could be widespread gray water reuse – a filtered system for catching shower and bathroom sink water for drip or flood irrigation of household landscapes. The state permits outdoor reuse of up to 400 gallons a day.
Forest health initiatives throughout northern Arizona’s vast ponderosa pine woods have primarily aimed to reduce fire risk and protect ecological values by thinning trees. But water managers and the cities that count on them are hoping the work also sends more water down the Verde and Salt rivers toward Phoenix.
Los Angeles – For a few balls to the dollar, Los Angeles-area providers have covered small reservoirs not just to slow evaporation but to keep bird waste and sunlight out to preserve water quality.
The Arizona American Indian tribes that have settled water claims with the government may hold the keys to a lot of what happens in the Phoenix area. In fact, tribes are entitled to about half the water that the Central Arizona Project pumps from the Colorado River.
Imperial Valley, California – Farms are where most of the Colorado River ends up, so farm efficiency represents the biggest potential pool for water savings. Water leases from farms are controversial, as the owners of those water rights don’t want to lose control. But both already are starting to see that happen.
Santa Barbara, California – Three years of historically dry winters in the Sierra Nevadaforced Californians to kill a lot of lawns and cut per-person water use by a quarter this summer, just to get by. Not content to wait and see if the next few winters offer a reprieve, Santa Barbara is among the coastal cities ready to pay up and tap an eternal source: the sea.
Arizona’s government water experts remain a depleted resource seven years after severe budget tightening. Like the state’s essential water bank at Lake Mead, the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ staff has dropped to half its former level with no clear forecast for a rebound.
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