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.
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.