Capturing Water


July 9, 2015

Issue 13: July/August 2015Photo Essay

A native of Tucson, I am swept away by the beauty of southeast Arizona, every day. Wielding various cameras I have built a 200,000-image library of the desert Southwest that is less nature-photography documentary than it is a paean to the drumming heartbeat of the Sonoran Desert. My background in politics (working for Mo Udall), government (working for the Arizona Department of Water Resources), and law (working as a water lawyer for 30 years) has not been especially helpful for my photography, since the overwhelming majority of my work has been imaging nature where there is no sign of the presence of man, at all. At the same time, my résumé has allowed me to understand some aspects of the landscape in ways that are not at all obvious.

We have spectacular monsoonal moisture: downpours and floods, and mountain front creek discharge that can go on for months. But no one—neither farmers, nor water utilities, nor golf courses, nor industry—relies on those water sources for anything. It is too explosive. It is too expensive to store. One hundred years ago, there were fairly well developed plans to dam Sabino Canyon to generate electricity, and to divert the flow of the Santa Cruz River to create lakes for use by Tucson Water customers. None of that came to pass because—well, because of the war-like fury of Chaac, the Mayan god of rain.

Rather, we stand by as the rain recharges our aquifers, and rely upon wells to pull it back up again. Because groundwater is invisible until it comes pouring up out of the ground, there is a serious void in our consciousness about what is actually going on down there. In the water regulatory arena, one comes to appreciate the skill and usefulness of hydrologists and to rely upon the science of hydrology, since there is no other way to understand what’s happening.

Monsoonal Adumbrations: In June, cloudbanks slowly build, and swell, and threaten, and ultimately explode into our annual monsoon. This is a photo taken in the infrared spectrum.

It’s counterintuitive to learn that there have been rising groundwater levels in much of Tucson Water’s service area over the last 10 years. Even more startling, there have been rising groundwater levels in the Marana area and northwest toward the lower end of Pinal County.

Why? First, Tucson Water has done an astonishing job of importing and recharging water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), primarily in the Avra Valley, but also south of the city closer to Green Valley.

Second, with respect to the farming areas northwest of here, an enormous amount of our effluent has simply been abandoned into the Santa Cruz River for the last 20 years and left to flow north into Pinal County, recharging the aquifers of farmers; and, in order to obtain recharge credits, local utilities have been buying CAP water for some of those farmers, suspending their groundwater withdrawals—at least for a time.

But the flow of effluent down the river and into Pinal County has now come to an end. This is a result of Pima County spending $500 million on a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility that now generates such clean water that it recharges almost immediately. (Effluent that is not so clean serves to cultivate bacterial growth that once nearly sealed the bottom of the riverbed.)

All of these developments, and all of the reversals that will come when CAP water becomes less available, eventually are reflected on the landscape. And so the photographs I’ve taken that “show no trace of man” unavoidably end up capturing the otherwise invisible (and sometimes insidious) changes that man has made to the hydrological cycle by drawing down the groundwater levels.

Nothing is constant except change.


Land of the Water Barons: This is a typical scene of farming along the Colorado River. Due to fairly antique laws regarding “first in time, first in right,” the major irrigation districts along the river in southwest Arizona and southeast California have rights to water that will survive even if shortages result in rationing for urban residents in Nevada, California, and Arizona. Vast, vast amounts of Colorado River water are used for farming. The reductions ordered by the State of California for farmers using water within the State of California have no effect on this corner of the world: these farmers use water rights under federal contracts that incorporate interstate treaties that make them all but invulnerable to state action.

Sonoran Lightwww//

The Navajo Generating Station: The Colorado River water that recharges aquifers in Tucson via the CAP has come a long way: 336 miles. The City of Tucson recharges more than 100,000 acre-feet per year (sometimes a lot more). There are more than 325 thousand gallons of water in each acre foot; at 8.3 pounds per gallon, that’s nearly three million pounds of water per acre foot. Now we have to lift 135 million tons of water some 2,000 feet, from the intake on the Colorado River to the City’s recharge basins. Think about how much energy that requires—and how much that energy costs, not only financially but environmentally. At a relatively frugal wholesale price of 4 cents per kilowatt hour provided by this power plant, that’s only 6 cents per acre foot. But multiply that one acre foot by 100,000, and one foot by 2,000 feet, and now you’re looking at costs of more than $10 million.

Does this make sense? In utility management, as in everything else in life, the answer is: compared to what? There’s a whole universe of alternative water management scenarios out there. And let’s just say—we’ll probably be exploring them sooner rather than later.


Pumping into the dust storm: Twenty miles north of Tucson, the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District serves tens of thousands of acres of farmland, as it has for nearly a century. Its pumping resulted in the lowering of the groundwater table by hundreds of feet—although, for the last 20 years, many of those farms have relied on CAP water.


Black-necked stilts, Cochise Lakes: What does it say about us that many of our most beguiling “natural” areas are simply outfalls from our sewers? Migratory birds aren’t picky, and they can’t afford to be. Many hundreds of species stop by southeast Arizona to rest in the effluent lagoons of Tucson, Sierra Vista, and everywhere else towns and cities have sprung up. This photo was taken at Cochise Lakes; the water comes from the sewage treatment plant in Willcox.


Rapturous Raptor, southeast of Ragged Top: In all cultures, in every epoch, fields of grain have meant havens for rodents. This red-tailed hawk, north of Marana, uses the sign of a Phoenix real estate brokerage as a lookout. The subdivisions that will inevitably replace these wheat fields will not, unfortunately, be much of a haven for the red-tails.

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