The least sustainable city: Phoenix as a harbinger for our hot future
If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.
Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.
In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?
And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time — New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy — may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures — grids going down, levees failing, backup systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.
Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so — the aptly named Valley of the Sun.
In Phoenix, it’s the convergence of heat, drought, and violent winds, interacting and amplifying each other, that you worry about. Generally speaking, in contemporary society, nothing that matters happens for just one reason, and in Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention.
If, in summer, the grid there fails on a large scale and for a significant period of time, the fallout will make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look mild. Sure, people will hunt madly for power outlets to charge their cellphones and struggle to keep their milk fresh, but communications and food refrigeration will not top their list of priorities. Phoenix is an air-conditioned city. If the power goes out, people fry.
In the summer of 2003, a heat wave swept Europe and killed 70,000 people. The temperature in London touched 100 degrees F for the first time since records had been kept, and in portions of France the mercury climbed as high as 104 degrees F. Those temperatures, however, are child’s play in Phoenix, where readings commonly exceed 100 degrees F for more than 100 days a year. In 2011, the city set a new record for days over 110 degrees F: There were 33 of them, more than a month of spectacularly superheated days ushering in a new era.
In flight from the sun
It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.
Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90 degrees F. Today such temperatures are commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100 degrees F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures [PDF] by as much as 10 degrees F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast.
Predictably, the poor suffer most from the heat. They live in the hottest neighborhoods with the least greenery to mitigate the heat-island effect, and they possess the fewest resources for combating high temperatures. For most Phoenicians, however, none of this is more than an inconvenience as long as the AC keeps humming and the utility bill gets paid. When the heat intensifies, they learn to scurry from building to car and into the next building, essentially holding their breath. In those cars, the second thing they touch after the ignition is the fan control for the AC. The steering wheel comes later.
In the blazing brilliance of July and August, you venture out undefended to walk or run only in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The idea for residents of the Valley of the Sun is to learn to dodge the heat, not challenge it.
Heat, however, is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient [PDF] as the mercury soars. And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems. But then along comes the haboob.
A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but — although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust — the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights — and AC — to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief. So far.
Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.
Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobs of a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).
Water, water, everywhere (but not for long)
In dystopic portraits of Phoenix’s unsustainable future, water — or rather the lack of it — is usually painted as the agent of collapse. Indeed, the metropolitan area, a jumble of jurisdictions that includes Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Sun City, Chandler, and 15 other municipalities, long ago made full use of such local rivers as the Salt, Verde, and Gila. Next, people sank wells and mined enough groundwater to lower the water table by 400 feet.
Sometimes the land sank, too. Near some wells it subsided by 10 feet or more. All along, everyone knew that the furious extraction of groundwater couldn’t last, so they fixed their hopes on a new bonanza called the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a river-sized, open-air canal supported by an elaborate array of pumps, siphons, and tunnels that would bring Colorado River water across the breadth of Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson.
The CAP came on line in the early 1990s and today is the engine of Arizona’s growth. Unfortunately, in order to win authorization and funding to build it, state officials had to make a bargain with the devil, which in this case turned out to be California. Arizona’s delegation in the House of Representatives was tiny, California’s was huge, and its representatives jealously protected their longstanding stranglehold on the Colorado River. The concession California forced on Arizona was simple: It had to agree that its CAP water rights would take second place to California’s claims.
This means one thing: Once the inevitable day comes when there isn’t enough water to go around, the CAP will absorb the shortage down to the last drop before California even begins to turn off its faucets.
A raw deal for Arizona? You bet, but not exactly the end of the line. Arizona has other “more senior” rights to the Colorado, and when the CAP begins to run dry, you may be sure that the masters of the CAP will pay whatever is necessary to lease those older rights and keep the 330-mile canal flowing. Among their targets will be water rights belonging to Indian tribes at the western edge of the state along the lower reaches of the river. The cost of buying tribal water will drive the rates consumers pay for water in Phoenix sky-high, but they’ll pay it because they’ll have to.
Longer term, the Colorado River poses issues that no amount of tribal water can resolve. Beset by climate change, overuse, and drought, the river and its reservoirs, according to various researchers, may decline [PDF] to the point that water fails to pass Hoover Dam. In that case, the CAP would dry up, but so would the Colorado Aqueduct which serves greater Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the All-American Canal, on which the factory farms of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys depend. Irrigators and municipalities downstream in Mexico would also go dry. If nothing changes in the current order of things, it is expected that the possibility of such a debacle could loom in little more than a decade.
The preferred solution to this crisis among the water mavens of the lower Colorado is augmentation, which means importing more water into the Colorado system to boost native supplies. A recently discussed grandiose scheme to bail out the Colorado’s users with a pipeline from the Mississippi River failed to pass the straight-face test and was shot down by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Meanwhile, the obvious expedient of cutting back on water consumption finds little support in thirsty California, which will watch the CAP go dry before it gets serious about meaningful system-wide conservation.
Phoenicians who want to escape water worries, heat waves, and haboobs have traditionally sought refuge in the cool green forests of Arizona’s uplands, or at least they did until recently. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire consumed 469,000 acres of pine and mixed conifer on the Mogollon Rim, not far from Phoenix. It was an ecological holocaust that no one expected to see surpassed. Only nine years later, in 2011, the Wallow fire picked up the torch, so to speak, and burned across the Rim all the way to the New Mexico border and beyond, topping out at 538,000 charred acres.
Now, nobody thinks such fires are one-off flukes. Diligent modeling of forest response to rising temperatures and increased moisture stress suggests, in fact, that these two fires were harbingers of worse to come. By mid-century, according to a paper by an A team of Southwestern forest ecologists, the “normal” stress on trees will equal that of the worst megadroughts in the region’s distant paleohistory, when most of the trees in the area simply died.
Compared to Phoenix’s other heat and water woes, the demise of Arizona’s forests may seem like a side issue, whose effects would be noticeable mainly in the siltation of reservoirs and the destabilization of the watersheds on which the city depends. But it could well prove a regional disaster. Consider, then, heat, drought, windstorms, and fire as the four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse. As it happens, though, this potential apocalypse has a fifth horseman as well.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the way a sudden catastrophe — an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado — can dissolve social divisions and cause a community to cohere, bringing out the best in its citizenry. Drought and heat waves are different. You don’t know that they have taken hold until you are already in them, and you never know when they will end. The unpleasantness eats away at you. It corrodes your state of mind. You have lots of time to meditate on the deficiencies of your neighbors, which loom larger the longer the crisis goes on.
Drought divides people, and Phoenix is already a divided place — notoriously so, thanks to the brutal antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross offers a dismal portrait of contemporary Phoenix — of a city threatened by its particular brand of local politics and economic domination, shaped by more than the usual quotient of prejudice, greed, class insularity, and devotion to raw power.
It is a truism that communities that do not pull together fail to surmount their challenges. Phoenix’s are as daunting as any faced by an American city in the new age of climate change, but its winner-take-all politics (out of which has come Arizona’s flagrantly repressive anti-immigration law), combined with the fragmentation of the metro area into nearly two dozen competing jurisdictions, essentially guarantee that, when the worst of times hit, common action and shared sacrifice will remain as insubstantial as a desert mirage. When one day the U-Haul vans all point away from town and the people of the Valley of the Sun clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too.
One day, some of them may look back and think of the real estate crash of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed with fond nostalgia. The city’s economy was in the tank, growth had stalled, and for a while business-as-usual had nothing usual about it. But there was a rare kind of potential. That recession might have been the last best chance for Phoenix and other go-go Sunbelt cities to reassess their lamentably unsustainable habits and re-organize themselves, politically and economically, to get ready for life on the front burner of climate change. Land use, transportation, water policies, building codes, growth management — you name it — might all have experienced a healthy overhaul. It was a chance no one took. Instead, one or several decades from now, people will bet on a surer thing: They’ll take the road out of town.