October 9, 2021

What if Where I Live becomes Unlivable?


For over thirty-six years, I have called the desert my home. Clearly, my family's decision to live in a land with little rain and more than enough heat was not unpopular. The Phoenix area has claimed us since 1985. During that time, the metropolitan population has grown from 1.7 million to almost 5 million fellow Phoenicians. It is the fifth-largest city in the country.

In 1985 there was one (partially completed) freeway. Now, there are seven and more are needed because of our love of cars. Yes, there is a decent bus system and even light rail. But, prying us out of our vehicles will be a tough sell, especially when you consider the full metro is almost 15,000 square miles in size.

Using a more conservative measurement, the metro area is only 10,000 square miles or 100 miles in each direction. To put that in perspective, the island we spent a fabulous vacation on just three weeks ago, Kauai, is only 552 square miles. Twenty-eight Kauai's would fit inside the full Phoenix metro with room to spare!

We have come to tolerate the 100+ degree days from May to October. Neither Betty nor I would exchange that high heat for a place with lowers temperatures but higher humidity. "It's a dry heat" is really real. 15% humidity makes 100 bearable, sort of, for a while.

But, wait. Climate change and its effects on the desert are beginning to show its power. Projections of more days over 100, even 115+ readings, will become not just an occasional occurrence. Already, we expect at least 120 days over 100 degrees and a dozen over 115. Add an increase due to global warming, and a logical conclusion is half of each year will warm past the century mark.

Just last month, a potentially fatal development was reported. The Colorado River is not that many years away from running out of enough water to serve the 40 million folks who depend on that flow to live, grow crops, even generate electricity. The 336 miles long Central Arizona Project uses water from the Colorado River to serve Phoenix and Tucson.

Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are dropping to the point where there won't be enough water to run the massive electric generators that supply Las Vegas and much of Southern California by sometime in the next decade. Phoenix gets one-third of its electricity generation from nuclear power, but oil remains vital. Yes, solar power is growing, but will there be enough time?

So, there's the picture. The place I and millions of others call home is facing an uncertain future. With heat building and water dwindling, America's southwest desert is at risk just as much as coastal areas that will flood or the places devastated by increased hurricane and tornado activity. As weather patterns change, what we "expect" a place to be like will not be what it is. 

How do I plan for that? Where would we go? I am not so worried for Betty and me. When the conditions here are beyond acceptable, we will be pushing up daisies (or cactus). I am more concerned for my daughters, my son-in-law, and my grandkids. Regardless of where they go, how disruptive and unpleasant will their next choice be? 

Just for the sake of argument, let's say humans are not responsible for global warming. I don't believe that for a second, but humor me. Even if what is happening is purely a normal cycle of change, after the last time something this dramatic occurred, dinosaurs could only be found in movies and their bones in a museum.

Why do we continue to act as if someone, or that all-power "they," will find a solution that doesn't disrupt everything we have come to know and expect? What happens when the water stops flowing, the electric grids can't cool a home in Phoenix, and Palm Beech, Florida, becomes an underseas diving attraction? What happens when Portland regularly breaks 90 degrees, all the permafrost in Alaska melts, and St. Louis begins to experience the heat and humidity of the south? 

I don't have an answer. But, I truly believe we are running out of time. And, I haven't a clue how I, or you, or our grandkids will solve this problem.

My only hope is enough humans are made uncomfortable and scared enough to give this situation the attention and urgent action it demands. We seem to only react when everything is on the line.

At least in the desert, I can see that line moving ever closer.


46 comments:

  1. And a somewhat related question is, at what point are there too many humans on the planet? Are we already past that point? And if so, what do we do about it?

    www.travelwithkevinandruth.com

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    1. Dear Kevin, age old question. Doesn't help matters that a few humans hog up resources, while the rest go without - that's been going on for ages also.

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    2. Interesting. The problem doesn't seem to be just overpopulation but population density. Huge parts of the globe are very thinly populated while others are falling all over each other. The massive shift from rural to urban has a large cost on the quality of life of many. That makes the income inequality even worse.

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  2. I keep hearing scientists say we need to avoid the tipping point, quickly followed by the fact that we don't know exactly where that tipping point is. It's frightening. Just read a report this morning that Lake Superior is at record warm temps for October. The winters in the Midwest are trending warmer, but we're also experiencing more violent weather patterns. It's hard to see the variety of weather events ramping up (flooding, insane rain amounts in hours, hurricanes, wild fires, etc.etc.) and not see the writing on the wall. Like you, the worst of it will likely hit after we're gone, but I do worry for our kids and grandkids.

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    1. One area of Italy received over two feet of rain in less than half a day...something that has never happened before. Meanwhile Antarctica just had its coldest winter season on record. Climate change is affecting all parts of the world in one way or another. It may already be past the tipping point, wherever that is.

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  3. Like you, Ken and and I worry about the future of water and the power grid here in Arizona.I love it here.Ken would be happier in a cooler climate.But a move is not in the picture, at least right now. I have friends who are moving back to the Midwest, a friend whose rent went up so high they are also going back “home” to Indiana. I hear of young people leaving to return to live with extended family,somewhere else. Arizona is not as affordable as it was in the 80’s when we moved here. Maybe this is the time to sell and get the big bucks, and relocate in a “safer” part of the country— but is there really one? I’m not ready to make that decision. I wanted to be retired RIGHT HERE. But, who knows what the future holds,especially for our “kids..” the younger generations coming up behind us.

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    1. I am not sure any one of us could pick a "safe" part of the country, or any country for that matter, to relocate to until the changes are more established.

      We could sell our home right now and get a huge bump over what we paid six years ago. But, every place we would even consider moving has had the same type of increase. So, we'd just turn over all that profit for another place.

      You and I know that housing prices go up and down, My nightmare is to buy something new at an inflated price, only to have a downturn wipe out a chunk of my equality.

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    2. I fell that in times as uncertain as these appear to be,staying put is a great option for now!!!!!

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    3. That is our decision for now. We are open to change but want to be cautious.

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  4. We've been to Phoenix. It sure is hot there! And we do worry about our favorite place, Charleston, SC, which could be underwater before too long. Not to mention the poor places around the world that are only a few feet above sea level. But check out Re: TV on amazon prime for a series of short videos (featuring Prince Charles of all people) covering a lot of things being done on energy, recycling, biodiversity, water, and a host of other issues. Might give you some hope.

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    1. Phoenix has done a tremendous job of shoring up our water supplies, and it moving quickly toward alternative fuel. We have few natural disasters to worry about. But, heat doesn't go away. Add 10 degrees more to our summer averages and all the rest of that stuff doesn't matter much.

      I do hold out hope we will eventually ditch our dependence on fossil fuel and a very wasteful lifestyle. But, at what human cost in the interim, and how many generations before people can start to benefit?

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  5. Living in California, I worry about all the same things. Let's add forest fires to the list. We don't want to move, either, so we'll just ride this out. As you said, it will be way worse for the generations behind us, unless they are the ones who figure it all out.

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    1. They will have to figure it out or there will be no future generations living in a way we'd recognize. That is very, very scary.

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  6. Good to hear from you again Bob. It would definitely appear Phoenix will lose significant population in the future. The entire west becomes more questionable. My old industry, semiconductors, is planning on adding more fabrication facilities to Phoenix. This is a very water intensive industry and will only speed the decline. The answer for your children and grandchildren it most likely the same at it has become for Americans in general. Make sure you have easily transferrable skills and don't invest everything you have in a given locality. Makes one wonder if American migrants will be treated as poorly as foreign migrants by their fellow countrymen. Climate change will definitely front run our desire or ability to reduce carbon emissions. Future generations can look forward to significant climate problems for many years to come.

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    1. I watched a fascinating documentary about the Maldives. The highest point of this country is less than 6 feet above the Indian Ocean. They will lose their entire country to rising sea levels in the next few decades and the 550,000 residents have no where to go. Other countries are not offering help in any way.

      Phoenix sells its water much too cheaply. Land is affordable and the labor pool of skilled workers is deep. If semiconductor companies are expanding here it is purely out of a short-term profit mentality.

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    2. https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/environment/water-restoration-arizona.html

      They are trying to do something about water use while still manufacturing in the US. If we are too hard on companies they will just move elsewhere so it needs to be a balanced approach

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  7. It's an issue and people have been moving in great numbers from areas where climate change will have a lower impact, like around the Great Lakes, to areas where the impact will likely be much higher. like Arizona and Florida. Realistically places like the Arizona desert or south Florida couldn't support their current population but for human interventions like air conditioning and water diversion. Run out of the resources that enable those human interventions and those places will return to their previous low population densities.

    In terms of this being a recognized problem, that goes back a few decades. The Kyoto Protocol, the first to set targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, was April 28, 1998 though almost no country took any real action. As I told my daughters about 20 years ago when they were heading off to college all idealistic as they pressed me about about solving the climate problem that was in the news even then... "I assume you still want me to drive you college but I have no idea what to do, that's up to you to figure out".

    I have faith in the younger generation. Previous generations have faced down existential threats from world wars, the rise of totalitarian states, nuclear proliferation and Mutually Assured Destruction. I have confidence the young generations will figure it out too but it will probably be a painful adjustment. One thing for sure it won't just be incremental change, things are going to look very different than they do now--one way or another.

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    1. Mankind waits until the last tick of the clock before making tough choices. All the instances you mentioned were man-made issues. But, the place we live is starting to shift and shut down. When the planet that 7 billion of us live on on begins to massively change its SOP, we are in for a rough ride. Being inventive and finding solutions has never faced a situation as potentially dire as this.

      You are absolutely right: things are going to look very different than they do now.

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  8. For those of us who live in places we love, this is a hard prospect to consider. California lost population for the firs time ever this past year, and Maine has seen an influx of people moving here from out of state (many of whom might consider that warming temperatures make Maine *more* livable).
    I suspect that, in the next decade, Americans will be forced to get their heads around the Conservation of Matter -- that all natural resources (including water) are finite and that everything we "throw away" gets recycled, whether in ways that are beneficial to us or not. There's a lot we can do to intentionally cut down on waste. One of the most important ways to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions is to keep food out of landfills, which is where approximately one-third of the food we grow ends up. And why are we using fresh, potable water to flush toilets?? It's technologically feasible to create plumbing systems in which "waste" water from sink and shower drains goes into a gray water tank and is then used to flush toilets. My own personal challenge for this year is to cut my miles driven by 20%, which is the goal for Maine's Climate Action Plan.
    I also wonder how rich countries, like the United States, with relatively low population densities, will respond to the inevitable influx of climate refugees from poorer countries without the resources to cope with climate change. Some argue that much of the immigration pressure on our southern border in recent years is a result of climate-change driven natural disasters and crop failures.

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    1. This is an excellent summary, Jean. You have highlighted and commented on several key issues. How do folks in Maine feel about climate migrators? Too many new people would put quite a strain on the infrastructure. And, Down Easters like their privacy and solitude!

      If our treatment of immigrants for the last few decades is any indication, the U.S,. will not be the answer to a lot of the world's problems in this regard.

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    2. For now, Maine's official policy is to welcome in-migrants, both from other states and from other countries. Maine has the oldest population of any state in the US (a higher % over 65 than even Florida), and we have a serious labor shortage, so we need working-age folks and young families to move here. My local area has seen a big influx of African refugees in the past decade or so. There have been some tensions, but many of us see these immigrants as bringing new life to what was a dying mill town.

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  9. I have given up the possibility of moving to the Southwest, and decided to stay here in the Midwest. Our winters have become quite mild, and the summers are definitely more tolerable here. I now live in a "blue" town in a "red" State and that makes a big difference to me. I hated living behind enemy lines, and at least now I am in the fortress mode with like-minded citizens.

    I think you are underestimating when the SW will go critical. The drought seems to only get worse year after year now. Of course, that also means more forest fires. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that the mass exodus from Phoenix will be in full swing by the end of this decade. Try to sell a house under those conditions, and you will find all those gains you made in the last decade evaporate.

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    1. Here in Idaho water was turned off so early farmers were unlikely to get a decent October harvest. CSA farmers could not put in fall crops to keep the markets open nor could they sell fall/winter shares. We had a decent winter snow pack but an exceptionally dry spring and a recorded record heat this summer. Unless we have a HUGE snowpack this winter, we're in for several years of exceptional drought as our aquifers will not be able to recharge.

      Meanwhile, the influx of migrating people in Boise and the surrounding towns has doubled property values in Boise and the surrounding towns. The infrastructure was already poor and now it feels like there is no hope in sight to catch up let alone get ahead.

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    2. RJ: I am glad your new home is in a politically more friendly area of your state. That is one less stress to worry about!

      I hope you are wrong about my part of the SW being unlivable in 8 years. Southern California is on a tighter timetable. With the Colorado river running dry, the reservoirs emptying, and forest fires seemingly a constant reality, the Golden State is in trouble.

      I give Phoenix until 2050. I will be long gone, but my daughters and grandkids will not. Where are they going to live is the question.

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  10. I think the younger generation does have proposed solutions. The problem is that elected leaders of older generations don't care what the "kids" think/say and won't fund the needs. Mass transit takes $ but the oldsters want their cars. We live in a rural large city. (does that make sense?) We drive 2 vehicles less than 15k miles per year. I have a cousin who complains about gas prices because "I just need to go for a long drive" and that could be 300 miles easily. She is just 3y older than me. I would use a bus for errands if it were reasonable but I have to walk 2 miles to the nearest stop and that is hardly reasonable with bags of groceries, a case of cat food, a 40# bag of cat litter. Plus there's a bus change downtown before I can get to the store just 3 miles from home. It is ridiculous. Light rail and commuter parking lots? Younger generation is begging for it. Conservative elected officials won't fund it.

    I would love it if a plumber in the area could install a grey water system for us to send shower and dish water to the toilets. We don't have those skills. We only heat to 67 and we cool to 73, 70 at night or this hotflashing broad can't sleep.

    My heart goes out to the generations under age 35. It looks bleak and I pray they get elected soon and get change started to hopefully save this Mother Earth.

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    1. Like you, I would welcome a grey water system. I am sure a plumber could do it, but the expense would be astronomical. Using drinking water to irrigate our plants and water the lawn is also silly.

      Phoenix does have a pretty extensive light rail system and a few more miles are added every few years. The bus system is also decent. Even so, the freeways and surface streets are clogged at all hours of the day.

      Betty and I cut back to one car two years ago and have not had any problems. We probably drive less than 9,000 a year. We are in the market to replace our current vehicle with a hybrid plug-in, but they are unavailable because of supply chain problems. If our current ten year old car dies we may be forced to buy another gas engine car...something we would really rather not do.

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    2. I did eliminate lawn. In 1995 I took out the backyard and side yards and switched to drip irrigation gardening for food. In 2008 I took out the front yard and switched to drip irrigation gardening for food and perennials with a few annuals in the mix. Our water bill is STILL lower than it was in 1993. We did add a hot tub in 2003. It's only the 2 of us so we only change the water once/year and that's 500 gallons. We're not quite willing to go 2 years as we do use it regularly. We do direct the water to trees and perennials as we drain it in April. And we don't usually turn on drips until June as planting earlier can catch frost. (One year I planted food 3X!)

      We still run 2 vehicles because hubster chooses to continue working and he is not comfortable going down to 1. Mine is 6yo and his SUV is 4yo. Mine can easily last me the rest of my life just as I drive less than 4000 miles/year. We do any traveling in hubsters as he doesn't care for mine much and we're downhill skiers so plenty of snow travel.

      Maybe I'll explore this grey water with some plumbers here just for grins.

      Happy Saturday!

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    3. We have discussed eliminating some of the lawn areas. All the landscape plants are drought resistant and do well in a desert environment. Taking out the grass and replacing with plants and rock would make no economic sense, but at some point the powers that be will tell us to. We may take the plunge and do so early.

      We have to water landscape plants and grass year round, but not very often in the winter months.

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  11. I have had similar discussions with my husband. The city I was born and raised in, San Diego, is not only getting too big, but it seems pretty clear that drinking water will start to become scarce while ocean water will rise. We don't have children but that doesn't mean we don't worry about future generations. I wish I was more optimistic that we will find solutions (and have the courage to actually act on them) but I'm not. Just like Covid, it astounds me that such an obvious threat has been turned into a political football. And, just like Covid, the consequences of inaction will impact us all, not just those who choose to ignore science.

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    1. Most people don't realize that if not heavily watered, San Diego would resemble a desert. It's annual rainfall is not much greater than what Phoenix receives.

      The politization of virtually everything in our lives is both depressing and potentially fatal to our way of life. Ignoring reality, or dismissing it as inconvenient really accomplishes nothing, since reality could care less about what you "believe."

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    2. Dear Janis, ignoring science is bound to happen ... it's a grant-game. If you're a scientist whose research leads you to believe that 99.9% of the human population comes in two genders, you serious risk not getting the grant.

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  12. We are in our 50s and worry about this as well, but it's not clear where to move to, southeast very humid and hurricanes and bugs, California too expensive, up north too cold ( I've never lived in snow country). For now my best plan is to be a snow bird but as I get older that won't work as well.

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    1. Those of us of a certain age are facing a choice, but for us it is more about convenience and comfort.

      The generations that come after us will pay the price for previous bad choices and rejection of reality. They will live in a radically different world.

      I am with you...no snow ever again. But, in 30 or 40 years, snow country may not even exist inside the continental United States.

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  13. We live in a 620 square foot park model in Tucson for six months of the year, and in an 820 square foot remodeled basement apartment the other six months. We have greatly downsized and simplified and we are comfortable with that. "The way of life we know" is quite unlike life 100 years ago, but I can see being content with a different way of life than the one we have now. The "new normal" from Covid - especially supply chain issues - is a little frustrating, but I have a feeling we'll adapt to more limiting circumstances - and those limitations may very well spark change as capitalism finds new ways to make profit that might actually benefit us all.

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    1. I have seen pictures of your large house in Washington and remember what your husband did to convert the basement into the apartment you describe. That was a lot of work but the end result was practical and pretty.

      The supply chain problems triggered by Covid were probably always there, just waiting for a trigger. To have a "just in time" type of setup does leave one vulnerable to even the smallest ripple.

      The lack of dock workers, truck drivers, even restaurant staff are not going away without some systemic changes in wage and benefit structures. I agree that we will adapt to more limiting circumstances, and I see that as a good thing. Instant gratification has caused all sorts of problems for a long time.

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  14. It begins with one person. Social responsibility. In the Southwest? Get rid of the lawns and swimming pools (my extended family did years ago). Put in good windows and learn to live with warmer (or colder) house temperatures. Stop eating almonds, avocados and other crops that are heavily dependent on large amounts of water. Insist on more "green" areas (ok they are brown- but that is cool) that doubly serve as rivers when there is a flood. End that flood into an aquifer (California is doing that). Phoenix did all that when I grew up there- but the crazy resettling of the midwest has changed all of that. Maybe it is time for that shift back?
    If you believe overpopulation is the key- then why take up space? I am delighted those who feel it is a problem are not having children, but are they using the same resources as if they were a family with children?
    The younger population in the US tends to be from immigrant populations- as someone said above- welcome them. Embrace that they tend to be followers of Abraham. You may not like that they are, but they are the US future. Islam, all forms of Christianity, LDS- strong family bonds with Church as a center.
    We moved back to my husband's hometown after 50 years away. We built a very tight, well insulated house. We have sweaters for the winter and farms all around us. Lots of water conservation ideas around- but the fishing in the Snake is wonderful. RJ would not like it here...it is redder then red ;)

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    1. Yes, our lawn is probably not long for this world, especially in the front. The majority of front yards have either always been native (meaning rocks, boulders, and desert planting), or converted. One house down the street went to artificial grass to keep the nice green look but with no water and no upkeep.

      Phoenix and the suburbs do have a lot of parks that are really depressions to hold and slowly release water after a heavy rain. With very few storm drains that is a good thing, twice over.

      We do keep our house warmer than most (79 in the summer) and at an almost brisk 67 in the winter. Replacing the old windows with energy efficient ones is a long overdue step. Thanks for the nudge, Janette.

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    2. Bob, if you ever want ideas for turning your front yard into “Xeriscape” call Ken.He has a green thumb and loves to garden. We have had Xeriscape in our last 3 homes, which is some rock out front with LOTS of flowering shrubs and native trees that are low water use.It is not the same as “desert” landscaping” with cactus. Our front yard is actually TOO FULL with flowering shrubs right now..Ken can’t stop planting! It’s not hard to put in a few plants that will take off fast in this climate and look pretty!

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    3. Thank you for the offer, Madeline. I will absolutely ask Ken for his input when we are ready to take that step.

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  15. In the mid 1990s, about 10 years after you moved to Arizona, I too was taken with the thought of living there. I made a reconnaissance trip that removed all of my fantasies of life there. I drove around town looking for possible areas where I could live and encountered enormous resorts with gargantuan lawns and gardens, and golf courses everywhere. People had grass in their front yards! In a desert!! What?!?! Insane. And Every.Single,Person I met there was talking about the city's aspiration to be the third largest US city. I kept mentioning the lack of water in Arizona but was kinda laughed at. I was appalled on all fronts. Yeah, nice sunny weather, and beautiful scenery. But I knew then that the whole place was a crazy fantasy that would blow up. And here we are, with the whole southwest blowing up. All so a bunch of entitled nutballs could rid Arizona of cactus in favor of grass, and don't forget golf courses. Too bad the rest of us all have to pay the price along with those nuts.

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    1. I encourage discussion and disagreement, but name-calling is not part of the deal.

      Most of what you describe happened when Midwesterers moved to the desert and wanted it to resemble home.

      But, in any case the situation is no more insane than people in Florida living right on the ocean front or folks in New Orleans building a city lower than sea level. Parts of Miami flood after a big rainstorm and NYC subways are under water.

      Climate change is changing all the rules.

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    2. For informational purposes, I will add that golf courses are moving to using non-potable water and/or target design: the roughs and parts of the fairways are grass-free to help reduce water, fertilizer, and pesticide use as well as the need to cut it.

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  16. It is a dilemma. I’m in Florida and the main reasons I’d like to get out are the #1 obvious…hurricanes and many months of high humidity and a corrupt power hungry governor. I read that some of the safest states for climate change are Minn, Wisc, Mich and Vermont. I I particular love Mich, but I could not live with that kind of cold.
    As long as the love of power and money is so entrenched in our country, especially in politics and big business, we don’t stand a chance. I can’t even imagine what it will be like in 5 years. I don’t know if the younger generations can alter politics to the degree necessary, to make a real and permanent difference. I afraid it’s too late.

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    1. If it is not too late, then we can see that fate straight ahead.

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  17. Hi Bob! Okay I am WAY overdue for checking in on this blog post....and all of your's actually. I have been on an extended vacation but just saw a link to your blog on FB and realized I hadn't been getting your post notices by email.

    Anyway, I've signed up again and this post really caught my eye. As you know Thom and I live in a sort of similar desert (The Coachella Valley) and although we have some of the same heat issues, in terms of water we are far better off. We are surrounded by mountains that feed our aquifer and there remains quite a bit of it. Our water districts manage it fairly well and water here in the desert should be available for years to come. Most of the golf courses are required to reclaim and reuse their water and although except for some "stupid" developments with extensive water features, most development is being much more water conservative than in the past. Probably the worst thing that discourages water usage in our area is that it is extremely cheap. We have desert landscaping on a small lot and the most expensive part of our bill ($10-15 a month) is for the service charge.

    Of course, it does get hot here in the summer and likely will get hotter. But from what we can tell, and if our travels also inform, lots of places get pretty hot in the summer and they are far less prepared for heat than we are here in the desert. Everywhere is air-conditioned and we even have an evaporative cooler that fills in on in-between times.

    There are steps we can all take to help mitigate the challenges we face now and those to come but ultimately I can't help but believe that if it isn't handled by those in charge by mandating important changes, much of our actions won't make too much of a difference until things get so bad that we MUST change. As you said, "we" probably won't be around to face the worst of it but I do worry for the future like everyone else who reads your blog.

    Time will tell... ~Kathy

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    1. Hi, Kathy. I know you have been spending a chunk of the summer in Canada. The pictures are gorgeous. In fact, they make us want to revisit Victoria Island and parts of BC.

      With a large lot, and too much non-native planting, like grass, our water bill is usually in the $80 range, but that includes fees for the sewer connection and trash/recycling pickup.

      Phoenix area officials claim they have a good handle on water, but time will tell. The city that is probably facing a more immediate threat is Tucson. Most of their water comes from pumping aquifers and the Arizona Canal, which is diverted water from the Colorado River. Both those sources are under threat.

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